Monday, 14 April 2014

Gallery Update


Before posting the next and final discussion concerning trees as metaphors, I have been busy adding fresh images to this blog’s galleries that can be accessed by clicking on the set of links to the right of the” Home” button at the top of the page.

For the “Architecture and Ornament” gallery I have posted a lithograph featuring a bouquet-like arrangement of what I assume to be a bundle of fig leaves crowned with a head of maize or corn. Doubtless, this beautiful design has found its way into a woodcarver’s storehouse of motifs.

In the “Figures and Fauna” gallery you’ll see the best set of ears around. They are simply stunning—if you have a leaning to drawings steeped in the traditions of the nineteenth-century academies.

You must have a look at the “Landscapes and Flora” gallery as I’ve posted Claude Lorrain’s last etching. It has all the hallmarks of an artist at the peak of his confidence. Just look at the final image where I show the details of the print to see what I mean: no pretention just mastery of “feeling” a subject in space. Also in this gallery there is the print that made Adolphe Appian famous. Whether it is his best or simply a wonderfully moody print can only be answered by the viewer. Nevertheless, I have included a quote that places this print as the image that marked Appian's change from “finding” himself as an artist to being one.

The “Books” gallery now has a rare copy of Jacob Strutt’s book with a name that only the author himself could love: Sylva Britannica; or, Portraits of Forest Trees, Distinguished for Their Antiquity, Magnitude, or Beauty.

Finally the gallery for the weird and wonderful, “Object and Artefacts”, did have a curiously interesting Victorian executive toy on offer but it has been snapped up and now only the pictures remain.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Trees as Metaphors (Part 3)

There is a long history of trees symbolising attributes such as strength, resilience and the essence of nature, but how have trees been used metaphorically in images (i.e. used pictorially to “explain” ideas)?


In the last instalment of this discussion I concentrated on artists’ metaphorical use of trees to visually “explain” various feelings of mood experienced in landscape. For the present discussion I will shift the focus and initially address how artists have used trees to articulate, in visual terms, their vision of a spiritual presence emanating from trees; or at least, how artists have portrayed some special trees in a way that communicates a unique tree-essence that makes them noble (i.e. to “stand out” as exemplar trees worthy of respect). Later I will offer personal insights into how artists have imbued trees with human attributes and how even the smallest elements of a tree can communicate significant and complex meanings.

Regarding the use of trees to illustrate the idea of nobility, there is a perfect publication featuring this treatment: Jacob George Strutt’s (1784–1867) Sylva Britannica; Or, Portraits Of Forest Trees Distinguished For Their Antiquity, Magnitude, Or Beauty (1822) featuring etchings of significant/well-known trees in the English and Scottish countryside (a digital version of this book is available for viewing/downloading at https://archive.org/details/sylvabritannicao00strurich [viewed 21 March 2014]) and a copy of this book is available in this blog’s “Books” gallery [see the line of links at the top of the blog]).

One of the more arresting of Strutt’s etchings in Sylva Britannica is The Crawley Elm—Sussex (shown below). Strutt viewed elms in general as having the “right” tree attributes for them to complement the nobility of country gentry. In fact, Strutt even goes as far as describing the elm’s attributes as if this type of tree were an actual person of noble standing:
Loving society, yet averse from a crowd, delighting in fresh air, and in room to expand its roots, and affording its aid to all the weaker plants in its vicinity that may seek its support, it presents a pleasing emblem of the class of country gentlemen, whose abodes it is oftenest found to adorn and protect. 
(Strutt 1822, p. 59)

Jacob George Strutt (1784/90–1864/67)
The Crawley Elm—Sussex, 1822
Published by Strutt (1822 [–1826]) in Sylva Britannica; Or, Portraits Of Forest Trees Distinguished For Their Antiquity, Magnitude, Or Beauty. London
Etching on cream wove paper
(sheet) 43.1 x 35.5 cm; (plate) 38.2 x 31.4 cm


Condition: Strong and well-inked impression with small margins. The sheet is in good condition (i.e. there is no foxing, or tears or scuffing) but the sheet is lightly irradiated and with dustiness appropriate to the age of the print (i.e. the sheet is slightly darkened).  The sheet is loose (i.e. not glued to a support sheet). I am selling this print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $182 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.









As expressed in his insight about their propriety, Strutt’s vision of elms clearly leans more to the poetics of moral virtues rather than to biological science. Moreover, this leaning guides the way that he portrays the elm at Crawley. For instance, in the etching, Strutt’s chosen angle-of-view gives an eye-level, front-on, centrally aligned and unimpeded view of the tree (i.e. there are no obstacles obscuring a “bull’s eye” view right to the centre of the composition where the tree is depicted). This formal compositional arrangement denotes the tree as special—in the sense that it is visually significant—while the gap of pictorial space between the viewer and the tree, casts the tree as having social status.

I understand that this curious anointment of social status by a gap in space may, at first, seem far-fetched, but the size of the gap is an important visual device employed by artists for depicting people with social status. It equates with “public space”—as opposed to “intimate space”—that dignitaries leave between common folk and themselves. By extension of the same principle with the elm, the gap casts the tree with an aura of untouchable status. Of course, this reading may never have passed Strutt’s mind as he shows a child climbing the elm’s trunk (see detail above) suggesting that the tree is not an unassailable entity but rather a welcoming regal host.

With regard to Strutt’s vision of presenting this tree as “a pleasing emblem” of country gentry, the portrayed door sealing the entrance to a homely abode within the tree’s trunk is difficult to overlook. After all, the idea that there is a space within the trunk framed by an entrance door must have been a fascinating attraction for the local folk. This feature alone sets it apart from other trees, but the fact that the door is closed also projects a hint of exclusivity in that access to this tree’s heart is removed from common folk.

As may be appropriate for tree of magisterial stature, Strutt not only draws the viewer’s attention to the elm’s height through a comparison of its size with other features surrounding it—especially the diminutive size of the figures and the hay-cart shown in the details below—but also his treatment of the tree itself connotes a commanding presence. Note, for example, in the detail below how Strutt has aligned the marks representing the tree’s foliage so the each stroke helps to lead the eye in spiralling rhythms around the trunk, as if the trunk were a magnetic core holding the space encircling it in check.


The Yew Tree—Ankerwyke, Middlesex (shown below) is another of Strutt’s etchings from Sylva Britannica. Here, the idea of rhythms connoting an aura of presence is taken a stage further. In this print Strutt portrays the yew tree as if it were an explosion in the landscape. Moreover, he uses the contrast of field workers peacefully engaged in their rural tasks set against the upward lines of the trunk and the outward twisting lines of branches. For me, this contrast conveys a sense of the tree’s dynamic energy within the calm of its surroundings.

Jacob George Strutt (1784/90–1864/67)
The Yew Tree—Ankerwyke, Middlesex, 1822
Published by Strutt (1822 [–1826]) in Sylva Britannica; Or, Portraits Of Forest Trees Distinguished For Their Antiquity, Magnitude, Or Beauty. London
Etching on chine-collé fine India paper laid on wove paper
(sheet) 34.3 x 40.7; (plate) 31.5 x 38.1 cm

Condition: Crisp and well-inked impression with small margins. The sheet is loose (i.e. not glued to a support sheet) and is in very good condition with minimal signs of handling. I am selling this print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $180 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.








Also from a personal standpoint, the explosive presence of Strutt’s yew tree is sustained by the shapes of the two trees shown to the left side of it. By this I mean that the structure of the horizontally layered foliage of the tree on the far-left supports the idea of lateral forces emanating from the yew, while the tree in the distance is like an arrow-head drawing attention to the explosive arrangement of the yew’s upward projecting rhythms (see diagram below).


Strutt may not have viewed his treatment of the yew in the way that I have proposed, but then again his vision of trees is underpinned by his personal experience and associations of English trees’ virtues:
what can afford more delightful contrast in landscape than the giant strength of the Oak, with the flexile elegance of the ash; the stately tranquillity of the elm, with the tremulous lightness of the poplar; the bright and varied foliage of the beech, or sycamore, with the funereal majesty of the cedar or the yew; all differing in form and character, as in colour .… (Strutt 1822, pp. 5–6)

Let me now move to how artists have imbued trees with human features and attributes to communicate metaphorical meanings. In terms of unambiguous use of trees morphed with human anatomy, some artists have been very explicit. For example, Arthur Rackham’s (1867–1939) beautiful illustrations often feature anthropomorphised trees, such as The Hawthorne Tree (1922) and Suddenly the branches twined round her and turned into two arms (1917) (both of these ink and watercolour illustrations may be seen in the post, Paper Trees [24 March 2011] from the blog Mud 'n Art: https://stevemessam.wordpress.com/2011/03/24/paper-trees/) and The Monkey Tree (shown below) by W.H.J. Boot (1848–1918) who also wrote the book, Trees, and how to paint them in water-colours (1883) (this book may be viewed at: https://archive.org/stream/treesandhowtopa00bootgoog#page/n4/mode/2up  [viewed 28 March 2104]). Perhaps the most memorable visualisation of trees as people is the famous scene from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) featuring the character, Treebeard, and middle-earth forest folk, the Ents (my apologies to J.R.R. Tolkien if my description of his characters is imprecise) as shown in the clip below.


Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers —Treebeard Rage Scene


William Henry James Boot (1848–1918)
The Monkey Tree
Wood engraving
From Picturesque Europe: The British Isles: With Illustrations on Steel and Wood by the Most Eminent Artists. Cassell & Company Ltd., London, p. 148.


Regarding artists’ use of anthropomorphised trees, I was given a very interesting insight during a chat this afternoon with my gardener—an affectionate name for John who is married to Isabelle who I affectionately call “my cook” mentioned in an earlier post. What the gardener revealed to me is that artists avoid showing the tops of trees when they are morphed into tree-people, as tops of trees don’t carry expressive meaning and they make the tree too large for practical purposes. This comment arose from his disappointment on first seeing the Ents in the clip shown above as his vision of them, based on reading the book, is that they should have leafy tops like all the other trees in the forest.

I suspect that the gardener may be correct, but, as shown by Strutt’s portraits of trees, metaphorical meanings may be projected even with leafy topped trees.  One print that illustrates how important the top of a tree can be is Eugène Bléry’s (1805–87) large etching, Le Vieux Chêne à la Figure Assise (shown below).

Eugène Stanislaus Alexandre Bléry (1805–87)
Le Vieux Chêne à la Figure Assise, 1844
Etching on chine collé
(sheet) 51.6 x 40.5; (plate) 41.7 x 33 cm; (image) 40 x 32 cm
Inscribed in margin: (lower-left) “EBlery delt. & sculpt.; (lower-right) “aqua forti 1844”
Description by the British Museum regarding this print:
“Landscape with in the right foreground a man resting on a river bank, under an oak tree; beyond, at left, a man and two cows.” (see http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3183453&partId=1&people=132133&peoA=132133-2-60&page=1 [viewed 30 March 2014])

Condition: Strong, well-inked impression with margins. The sheet has minimal signs of handling, but there is light foxing that appears to have been treated/cleaned as the foxing is pale and almost negligible. The chine collé also appears to have been removed in the past and reattached to the support sheet as the bottom corner which must have been printed with a crease has now been flattened perfectly and there also seems to be some abrasions/tears in the sky (but I could be wrong about this). I am selling this print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $290 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.









To be precise, however, the expressive potential of the large oak tree’s top portrayed in the print needs the rest of the tree and its surroundings to project a negotiable meaning. For instance, my reading of the tree and the figure resting at its base is that the relationship between them is a metaphor for a transition of mindset from temporal concerns to spiritual transcendence (i.e. a change from thinking about everyday issues, such as herding cattle as depicted in the distance, to a state of reverie and dreamy disengagement). To arrive at such a reading is all about perceiving correlations between different parts of the composition.

As an example of my own process of correlation, I first noticed the oak tree and then the figure resting among its roots. This initial set of observed features is not, of course, sufficient to construct the metaphor about a transition in mindset. The magical ingredient that prompted me to conceive such a meaning happened next when I noticed a figure herding cattle. At this point my mind conceived a relationship between the two figures—the one in the distance and the figure under the tree: they are both herdsmen as they are both holding a staff and wore similar clothes. I then concocted a narrative based on the further away herdsman looking over at the resting one: the further away herdsman is displeased with the passivity of the resting one. This mini narrative may be simple conjecture but it led to the next thought: what could the resting herdsman be thinking about? And another thought: what is the further away herdsman thinking that the resting herdsman is thinking about. At this juncture of reflexive thinking, the framing of the metaphor began to materialise. The oak tree, in terms of its structure and upward spiralling rhythm of limbs culminating in the single dead branch “pointing” skywards at the top, was perceived by me as an analogue for a change in mindset rather than being simply a tree.

No doubt other viewers may have different reading of this print but my intention is not to argue a case for how the image should be interpreted but rather that small details make a big difference in projecting meaning.

To bring this discussion to a close, I wish to draw attention to another very large and rare etching, The Gipsies (shown below), executed by one of the kings of landscape imagery, Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88). (Note that the term “Gipsy,” and the more common spelling “Gypsy,” for Romani people has unfortunate connotations and can been used in a derogatory way and so I prefer to use the term “traveller” even though this term encompasses a much broader group of people.)

Thomas Gainsborough (1727–88)
in collaboration with Joseph Wood (1720–63/64)
The Gipsies (begun 1753-4; 1759)
Etching and Engraving on wove paper
Inscribed in margin: (lower-left) “Painted & Etch’d by T: Gainsborough.”;
(lower-centre) “The Gipsies / Published by J. Boydell Engraver, in Cheapside London 1764.”
(lower-right) “Engraved and Finish’d by J. Wood.”
Republished state (Boydell) 1764
(sheet) 52.1 x 45.8 cm; (plate) 50.2 x 44.6 cm; (image) 47.5 x 41.8 cm
Comment by the curator at the British Museum regarding this print:
Text from 'Gainsborough and Reynolds in the BM', BM 1984 cat.10:
The etching records a lost picture by Gainsborough that was painted c. 1753-4 for an Ipswich patron (Waterhouse 887). An earlier and radically different version of the composition was slashed by Gainsborough in a temper and left unfinished; this was given by the artist to his friend Joshua Kirby and it is now in the Tate Gallery (Waterhouse 864; Hayes plate 33). It has not previously been observed that a study for the head of the donkey is in the British Museum (Oo,2.14, Hayes 857).
This impression
[see http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1467081&partId=1&subject=16741&page=1] shows the plate as it was left by Gainsborough, with all the lines etched. It was later reworked with the graver by J. Wood and published in March 1759, and again republished in 1764, this time by Boydell. Hayes states that "no impressions of the original etching by Gainsborough are now known", which can only mean that in the state exhibited in Clifford et al., 1978 has already been reworked with a graver. This is incorrect, for there is no trace of any such reworking. Since Hayes' book was published, an impression of an unknown earlier state, before the addition of some horizontal lines to the sky, and shading in the upper foliage of the tree, has been sold at Christie's (30 July 1975, lot 316)
(See painting of the same subject at Tate Britain, London
(See Hayes, John 1972, Gainsborough as Printmaker. Yale University Press, London, pp. 38–41.)

Condition: This very rare print is a well-inked impression with small margins. The sheet has light fold marks to the upper-left corner, a repaired tear to the lower right side (there is conservator tape verso) and the upper-left and lower-right corners are reinforced verso with conservator tape. The sheet is lightly aged by time and there is scattered pale foxing. I am selling this very rare print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $490 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.











What I find fascinating about this print is Gainborough’s use of a single dead branch jutting out from an otherwise healthy oak tree to give metaphorical meaning to a group of travellers and their animals gathered beneath. Although other viewers may see the tree and its dead limb differently, the meaning that I perceive is that the travellers are alienated from a nearby town symbolised by a stone tower depicted in the distance.

This personal reading is based on correlating and constructing meaning from three critical phenomena. First, the dead branch is illuminated by the same shaft of daylight that illuminates the travellers. From my standpoint, this shared lighting pictorially links the branch with the travellers. Second, the compositional placement of the branch is midway between the travellers and a far distant tower. This arrangement catches my eye and raises the subconscious query: why did Gainsborough place the limb in that position? Third, the forked end of the branch directs my eye in two different directions with one of the forked ends pointing to the travellers and the other pointing to the tower. For me this forking of the branch and the direction that the two ends face suggests that there is a conceptual connection between the travellers and the tower. Going further, the angular shape of the forked limb and its pale tone set against a dark background triggers my mind to see an association with forked lightening. And, by extension of this association, that the connection between the travellers and the tower/town is not a warm and friendly relationship.

In the next and final instalment concerning trees as metaphors, I will discuss the seldom explored but fascinating world of emblem prints.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Trees as Metaphors (Part 2)

There is a long history of trees symbolising attributes such as strength, resilience and the essence of nature, but how have trees been used metaphorically in images (i.e. used pictorially to “explain” ideas)?


In Part 1 of this discussion about artists’ use of trees as metaphors, I dwelt on the motif of the regenerating tree (i.e. a tree that has a dead stump or limb but also has fresh growth). For the present discussion I will shift the focus onto trees used as metaphors to visually “explain” romantic notions of mood (i.e. inner feelings such as awe, sublime elation and spiritual transcendence as well as negative feelings like melancholy, anxiety and fear).

Regarding artists who use trees to express mood, Adolphe Appian (1818­–­­­98) is an ideal exemplar. For instance, Appian portrays in his etching, Au Valromey (shown below), a meandering stream with a tree overhanging it as the central point of interest in the scene. This tree, however, is far from being a generic tree like the others depicted nearby. Instead, the tree has been crafted by Appian to be scary—in the sense of being spooky—with spindly branches that seem to reach out like feelers from a menacing monster. In short, when seen in this way the tree is a metaphor for eeriness and expresses the notion of sinister foreboding in a scene.

Adolphe Appian (1818­–­­­98)
Au Valromey, 1868
Published by Cadart et Luce (1868) in L'Illustration nouvelle par une société de peintres-graveurs à l'eau-forte (premier volume)
Etching and drypoint with light plate tone on fine laid paper with 2.7 cm chainlines
Inscribed: (lower-left) “Appian sculp. / CADART & LUCE, Editeurs. Rue Nve des Mathurins, 58.”; (lower-middle) “AU VALROMEY (AIN) / (Vallis Romana sous Jules César)”; (lower-right) Imp. Delâtre, Paris.”
(sheet) 29.7 x 46.5 cm; (plate) 13.9 x 24 cm; (image) 10 x 19.3 cm
State II (of II)
(see the related painting by Appian, In the Valromey Valley, near the Rhône River (1868), at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts: http://www.artsconnected.org/resource/5891/in-the-valromey-valley-near-the-rh-ne-river [viewed 5 March 2014])

Jennings 22; Prouté 25  

Condition: Superb, crisp, well-inked impression. The sheet is in good condition (i.e. there are no stains, handling marks or foxing) but there are remnants of three triangular hinge marks (recto) that are 2.5 cm from the plate mark. On the lower edge of the sheet (recto) are ink inscriptions by a former collector and (verso) has an ink stamp and an ink handwritten initial (?). I am selling this print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $176 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.







In Bords Du Lac Du Bourget (shown below) Appian again uses the arresting shape of a tree to visually communicate his feeling of melancholy. Here, a solitary figure is portrayed seated in a small boat that is partly grounded on the shore of Lake Bourget. Rising above the boat in the near distance is another spindly tree favoured by Appian but this time it has a zigzag arrangement to its limbs and it position crowns a rocky outcrop leading into the water. To my eyes, the contrast of this tree’s sharp angularity set against the broad planes of the surrounding rocks and rows of horizontal lines representing the sky is an analogue (i.e. visual equivalent) of anxiety (see the discussion about analogues in the earlier post, Three Analogues: Brown & Kollwitz 
[http://www.printsandprinciples.com/search/label/analogue]). By this I mean that the tree is depicted like a nest of energy impacting upon the comparatively calm appearance of its immediate surroundings. Going further, in the context of this tree’s compositional placement—a placement that I see as both a threatening presence above the boat with its seated figure and as a core of busy excitement dissipating into the surroundings (see changes in the treatment of the sky show below)—this tree plays a vital role in articulating the gloom of melancholy permeating the scene. 

Adolphe Appian (1818­–­­­98)
Bords Du Lac Du Bourget [Shores of Lake Bourget], 1866
Published by Auguste Delâtre in Gazette des Beaux-Arts, Volume XXI. No. 8 (1 July 1866 to 1 December 1866). 
Etching on chine collé with light plate tone on fine laid paper with 2.7 cm chainlines
Inscribed: (upper-right within the image) signature and “1866”; (lower-left) “Gazette des Beaux-Arts.”; (lower-middle) “BORDS DU LAC DU BOURGET / Imp. Delâtre, Paris”; (lower-right) “A.Appian pinxt. et sculpt.”
(sheet) 19 x 28 cm; (plate) 15.8 x 23.7 cm; (image) 12.3 x 20.5 cm
State II (of II)
(see description of this print in the Bibliothèque municipale de Lyon: http://sged.bm-lyon.fr/Edip.BML/(ajm5t245yxd30k45z3czm045)/Pages/Redirector.aspx?Page=MainFrame
 [viewed 11 March 2014])
Jennings 22; Prouté 25

Condition: Strong and richly inked impression. The sheet is in good condition (i.e. there are no stains, handling marks or foxing) but there is a remnant of removed tape on the middle-left edge and a light fold on the top-right corner. I am selling this print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $156 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.








Of course, trees do not have to be sinister forms in order to be metaphors signifying mood. Jacob Isaaksz van Ruisdael (sometimes spelt “Ruysdael”) (c.1629–82) employs a very different approach to using trees as metaphors. Ruisdael may have etched only thirteen plates, but these few prints illustrate very well how an artist can use trees to convey the romantic ideal of nature in its untamed state (i.e. wild and unmanicured by human intervention). For example, in The Great Beech, with Two Men and a Dog (shown below) Ruisdael uses the featured tree in a way that I think is almost visceral in conveying the idea of nature untamed. He does this by using his etched lines as visual equivalents for physically touching and handling the tree’s form as it twists and strains with the weight of its limbs. Ruisdael connotes this notion of organic energy in flux by minute changes in the direction and shape of the small marks rendering the tree. For example, note the changes of surface tensions captured by changes of mark attribute (i.e. the direction of the marks, their shape and their length) in the detail  of the tree's trunk shown further below.

Perhaps even more revealing, in terms of graphic expression of his passionate mindset and mood evoked by the drawing of the beech tree, is the contrast that Ruisdael’s haptic approach to drawing (for a discussion of the haptic approach, see the earlier post: Haptic and Visual: Rodin & Julien [http://www.printsandprinciples.com/2012/08/rodin-julien-haptic-visual.html]) differs from the perfunctory marks made by an unknown printmaker who aimed to improve upon Ruisdael’s plate by adding inexcusably horrid horizontal lines and cumulus clouds to the sky (to see the print before the “improvements,” one of the very few extant impressions of the first state is in the British Museum:
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=233096&objectId=1444713&partId=1 [viewed 17 March 2014]). Please be mindful, however, that not all of the sky was reworked with “improvements” by the unknown 17th century hand.  In the detail shown below of the sky on the right side of the print, there is a network of lines arising from craquelure in the etching ground—an accident that even Rembrandt succumbed to as seen in Little Stink Mill on the De Passeerde Bulwark in Amsterdam (see http://www.musicksmonument.nl/REMBRANT_VAN_RIJN_PROJECT/molen-3.html and 
http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details/collection_image_gallery.aspx?assetId=26541&objectId=755860&partId=1 [viewed 17 March 2014]). 

Like all metaphors, the meaning projected by a portrayed tree may be read (i.e. interpreted) on multiple levels. This is certainly true of Ruisdael’s prints. Although in the present discussion I have categorised Ruisdael’s treatment of the beech tree as a graphic representation—perhaps even a passionate evocation—of untamed nature, his treatment of the tree may also be read as a metaphor for the precarious uncertainty of life, in much the same way as Weirotter often employed trees (see previous post, Trees as Metaphors [Part 1]). This additional level of reading became increasingly a part of Ruisdael’s mission when portraying trees in his latter years, as Seymour Slive (2001) insightfully points out in his catalogue raisonné on Ruisdael:
Ruisdael’s particular emphasis on the growth of powerful natural forms is keenly felt in this etching of a gigantic beech, and in the predominant tree in … Cottage on a Hill [shown below]. Here the ancient tree clings with its roots to the projection of a cliff; its broken top helps balance the weight of its heavily foliated branches. During the early 1650s Ruisdael showed a predilection in his paintings for variation on the theme of a monumental tree clawing into high ground or precariously balanced on a bank. (p. 605.)

Jacob Isaaksz van Ruisdael (also “Ruysdael”) (c.1629–82)
Cottage on a Hill, c.1660
Second state from McCreery’s 1816 edition of 200 Etchings taken from the original plates (of II)
Etching on thin wove paper
Inscribed with signature on lower margin: “JvRuisdael f.”
(sheet) 19.5 x 27.9 cm; (plate) cut on or within the plate mark; (image) 18.5 x 27 cm
State II (of II)
Slive EI2; Bartsch 1.3-1[2] (1.313.2); Hollstein 3.11

Condition: Crisp, richly inked and rare impression in virtually pristine condition (i.e. it is without foxing, stains, chips or tears) and the sheet is loose (i.e. it is not glued to a support sheet). I am selling this print for a total cost (including shipping to anywhere in the world) of $370 AUD. Please contact me using the email link at the top of the page if you have any questions or click the “Buy Now” button below.







Regarding multiple readings of Ruisdael’s use of trees as metaphors, even the type of tree that Ruisdael chose to feature in his latter prints was important to him. For instance, Ruisdael chose a beech tree for the two prints discussed above, but, as the title of his attributed preliminary chalk study for these prints—Oak Trees on a River Bank (see Slive D54, p. 531)—suggests, Ruisdael envisaged that the beech was a more appropriate type of tree for his two prints. There may be little point in proposing reasons as to why he changed the type of tree from an oak to a beech, as any justifications can only be conjecture. In short, no one knows. Nevertheless, the fact that he did change tree types illustrates that he was seeking “something” in the tree he chose. Going further, and doing my best not to propose reasons that cannot be verified, he did have a leaning in his later paintings to the theme of what Clifford S Ackley (1981) in his excellent commentary in Printmaking in the Age of Rembrandt describes as the “heroic tree or group of isolated trees” (p. 227).


To offer an insight into this theme, the focus of the next instalment (Part 3) will shift to trees being used as metaphors for the noble hero.