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: [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 
[]). 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:
 [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.

This print has been sold

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 []) 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: [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 and [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). 

This print has been sold

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.