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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Painting Trees

Peach Trees in Blossom,
1888, Vincent van Gogh

"I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the earth's sweet flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray; A tree that may in summer wear A nest of robins in her hair; Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain. Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree."
--Joyce Kilmer (Trees, 1913)

Joyce Kilmer, 1908

Though only God can make a tree, artists have certainly been giving it their best shot almost since art began. Vincent van Gogh painted one of the most beautiful I've ever encountered, Peach Trees in Blossom (above, left) in 1888. Joyce Kilmer's poem may well be the best effort at describing them in words. Did you realize Joyce Kilmer was a man? His poem, dating from 1913, was penned looking out an upstairs window of his parents' home in Mahwah, New Jersey (below). Famous and not-so-famous artists have given us some of the most profoundly beautiful trees ever (perhaps never) seen by man. Some artists have very nearly made a career of painting trees. I've even been known to paint a few myself (below, left), though I'm certainly not in the same league as most of the painters I've collected here today.
The Kilmer home, Mahwah, New Jersey today. Kilmer's father is said to have loved trees. His son recalled he kept an enormous stack of them for firewood.
Copyright, Jim Lane
Branches, 2000, Jim Lane
As painting content goes, some artists might claim trees are among the least difficult to render. Perhaps that's why little children in kindergarten so often draw them with their lollipop stick trunks and big, round, lollipop tops. However any experienced, truly dedicated, landscape artist might cry, "not so fast!" The first trees an artist (kindergarten or otherwise) attempts to draw may seem "easy." From that point on though, they get more and more difficult as the artist strives to paint them well. That comes from the fact that, first of all, there are seemingly just short of a zillion different kinds of trees in all shapes and sizes from Bonsai to Sequoias. Some blossom profusely, some barely sprout foliage. Add to that the tactile texture the artist encounters in creating the visual texture of a trunk, plus the effort to capture a similar degree of visual texture representing the leafy canopy above, and the whole effort soon becomes a major visual test of the artist's technical virtuosity.

Evening, Red Tree, 1908, Piet Mondrian. By taking an expressionistic approach to painting trees, then gradually simplifying them more and more, his trees became the framework essence of his later experiments with color and structure.
Trees, Piet Mondrian
Perhaps one of the most important artist to have made the painting of trees into something of a developmental trademark was the Dutch painter, Piet Mondrian. Although best known for his experimentation with rectangular masses of color juxtaposed against an irregular black grid, on a white ground, Mondrian's arrival at that point came largely by way of Trees (right). Another Dutch painter could well be called the "discoverer" of trees, not just in "decorating" landscapes, but as worthy subjects in their own right. During the 1600s and the Dutch Golden Age, Jacob van Ruisdael became one of the earliest painters to probe the design essence and the symbolic significance to be found in a being older than man, but younger than the earth and rocks from which it sprung. Van Ruisdael's Blasted Tree Near a House (below), ca. 1645, is both tragic, and yet reassuring as the gnarled guardian of man survives, still protecting the humble abode despite the best efforts of nature to bring it down.

Landscape with a Blasted Tree Near a House, ca. 1645, Jacob van Ruisdael
Apollo and Daphne (1736),
Jean-Étienne Liotard 
The prize for the most innovative use of a tree in the pursuit of artistic excellence goes to the Baroque sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, and his 1622-25 Apollo and Daphne. The tragic background story is long and convoluted but basically Eros, angered by a mocking Apollo, shoots him with a golden arrow and the love of his life, Daphne (who loves him not) with a lead arrow. He pursues her, she cries out to her father for help, he causes her to turn into a Bay laurel tree rooted in the ground the moment Apollo touches her. It is this moment Bernini succeeded in capturing in marble and that the French painter, Jean-Étienne Liotard, with his own Apollo and Daphne (left), copied from Bernini in 1736, largely failed to capture in paint (notice the disproportionally small heads on both figures). Apollo is later struck down by lightning as he spends the rest of his life watching over his beloved tree.

Mulberry Tree, 1889, Vincent van Gogh
Under the Lemon Trees, 1884,
Claude Monet
Among the other artists down through history who have made painting trees something of a specialty, sometimes bordering on a fetish, van Gogh and Monet stand apart from their peers as among the best tree-hugging, tree painters to ever lift a brush. Van Gogh's Mulberry Tree (above) from 1889, was painted in the final months of his life in the ever more expressionistic manner marking his end-of-life style. Monet's 1884 Under the Lemon Trees (right) is an exploration of impressionist masses verging upon the same expressionism van Gogh was to display some five years later "under the Mulberry tree." Both artists recognized trees not just for their own strength and beauty, but as a gateway to an ever more painterly means of self-expression. We see a similar mindset in the Tree of Life (below) by Gustave Klimt dating from 1909, which would seem to have been influenced by Casper David Friedrich's Tree of Crows (below, left).

Tree of Life, 1909, Gustave Klimt
Tree of Crows, 1822, Casper David Friedrich
The same mindset marks the works of modern-day artists such as Rachel Bingaman as seen in her Rainbow Trees (below, right), while the Russian landscape painter, Ivan Shishkin's Morning in the Pine-tree Forest (below), from 1889, gives a whimsical glimpse of trees not used merely as a background but as an integral part of the playful scene unfolding among their splintered limbs and branches.

Rainbow Trees, Rachel Bingaman
And finally, there are those in this world, past and present, who see trees merely as a commodity to be exploited economically, or simply as vegetation blocking human progress, or even just blocking the view. Norman Parkinson's West Park Street Butte, Montana (bottom), is a stark reminder of what the world would be like without the sturdy, upright, masterpiece of exquisite vegetation only God can make.
Morning in the Pine-tree Forest, 1889, Ivan Shishkin.
West Park Street, Butte, Montana, Norman Parkinson.
They took all the trees
And put them in a tree museum.
Then they charged the people
A dollar and a half just to see 'em.
--Joni Mitchell (Big Yellow Taxi)

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