For those of us in the northern hemisphere, autumn/fall has started. For others in the southern hemisphere, I hope that you enjoy Spring, and perhaps these paintings will remind you of what is to come in six months time!
This weekend, I’m going to look at one of the most beautiful natural phenomena which transforms the higher latitudes every autumn, and which has inspired many fine paintings: the change in colour of deciduous foliage. Oddly, there isn’t a neat word in English to encapsulate the process which changes our trees, woods, and forests into richly glowing embers.
This first article looks at depictions of woodland spirits, such as the Dryads, and tomorrow’s at paintings of the trees themselves.
Most mythological systems have tree spirits, although those in Asia tend to be expressed in sculpture rather than painted images. In European art, the spirits are most usually termed Dryads or Hamadryads, drawing from classical Greek and Roman myth.
Strictly speaking, a Dryad is the spirit of a specific oak tree, although the term is normally used more broadly for the nymph associated with any specific tree, of whatever type, or a wood nymph. A Hamadryad is a Dryad who is irreversibly bonded to and in a tree, such that the death of the tree brings about the death of the Hamadryad. The term also seems to be used for a Dryad associated with a specific species of tree, such as Balanos for the oak.
I suspect that in the titles of most paintings, the terms wood nymph, Dryad, and Hamadryad are used interchangeably.
Paintings of classical myths were most frequent and popular during and after the Renaissance, but at that time, few if any depicted tree spirits or Dryads.
They started to become more popular in the nineteenth century, in association with the growing interest in ‘faerie’ paintings and the like. Francis Danby, a contemporary of JWM Turner, painted this magnificent view of The Wood Nymph’s Hymn to the Rising Sun (1845), in which the Dryads are all but invisible, I think.
Their first clear expression seems to have been in Émile Bin’s The Hamadryad in 1870. Being nymphs, of course, they must be shown nude. When I first saw this painting, I thought that it was a depiction of Erysichthon chopping down Ceres’ sacred oak (in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book 8). However, the man is far too young to have an adult daughter, and this tree doesn’t appear to be an oak, nor is it in a sacred grove.
Evelyn De Morgan’s The Dryad (1884-85) looks worryingly sad and lonely, as she stares into the distance from within the trunk of her ancient ash. There are some delightful details too: the flowers at the foot of the tree, a cat and a bird in its branches, and a pale lizard beside the Dryad’s right leg.
Even the renegade and often sacrilegious Félicien Rops seems to have taken his Hamadryad (c 1885) quite seriously. But, as usual with Rops, nothing is quite as straightforward as it seems.
The nude woman is seen embracing the trunk of a tree, and is definitely not a part of it. In her left arm, she holds a blue cape, and around the foot of the tree, white garments (or pieces of fabric) are scattered. There is a green furled umbrella on the ground, with a woman’s hat on top. Around the base of the tree, and decorating the woman’s hair, are scarlet flowers.
Rops has written at the top of the sheet about ‘Le Grand Pan’ singing, and at the lower left about travels to the countries of the ‘vieux dieux’, or old gods. Perhaps the woman has come to visit her lover the Hamadryad, and has undressed to make love?
Walter Crane’s more illustrative watercolour of Nyads and Dryads, probably painted between 1880-1900, seems less enigmatic. He melds the Dryads in with their trees, puts the ‘Nyads’ or Naiads (water nymphs) in the water, and has a river god watch from the reeds in the distance.
Painted at about the same time, Gabriel Guay’s autumnal vision of The Last Dryad has her embracing a herm or term (bust of a god on a rectangular pillar). Her deep copper hair matches the paler yellows and browns of the leaves falling around her.
John William Waterhouse’s Hamadryad from 1893-95 is watching a young faun – perhaps Pan himself – playing the reed pipes. At his feet is a thyrsus, tipped with a pine cone, which refers to Maenads or Bacchantes.
Henry John Stock’s painterly portrait of The Dryad from 1913 skilfully blends her hair and torso with the tree.
Almost forgotten today, Stock trained in the Royal Academy Schools in London, and made a living painting portraits. However, he also had a leaning towards painting more imaginative and narrative works, influenced by William Blake and George Frederic Watts. Stock’s paintings are starting to become popular again, and fetch substantial prices at auction now.
His model, Winifred Ianthe Clayton (1895-1975), was just eighteen at the time that she posed for this, and for her portrait in the same year. She seems to have been a family friend, and Stock also painted her older sister Violet (1893-1977). The Claytons lived in the Manor House, Felpham, Bognor Regis, Sussex, where Stock had his studio, after he had moved out of London.
The other great tradition of visual art which features tree spirits as motifs is Japanese painting.
Ogata Gekkō painted his Nihon hana zue (which may just mean In Japan!) in 1896, using pigments on mulberry paper, and this was apparently published by Sasaki Toyokichi.
The painting refers to a play Love Story at the Snow-covered Barrier, which has a similar story to that of Erysichthon in Ceres’ sacred grove. Its villain wants to cut down a huge black cherry tree in full blossom. Just as he is about to swing his axe, the spirit of the tree appears as a courtesan, and freezes the villain’s hands. The spirit of the tree then overcomes him, and the tree is unscathed.
I would have loved to show you paintings of tree spirits from other mythologies too. One which I find particularly interesting is the Gille Dubh or Ghillie Dhu of Scottish (?Gaelic) mythology, who is a solitary male faerie who is devoted to children.
In addition to stories about him in the birch woods near Gairloch, in the Highlands, his name has become associated with the camouflage suit worn by military snipers – a Ghillie Suit. These were originally developed by Scottish gamekeepers for camouflage when hunting, and were then used by the Lovat Scouts, a Highland regiment of the British Army, during the second Boer War.
Perhaps it is as well that those soldiers don’t know that they are dressing up as tree spirits.