This year, you may have been reduced to viewing the cherry blossom in Japan and Washington DC online. In a bid to help us all get our springtime dose of tree blossom, today and tomorrow I’m showing a small selection of paintings of tree blossom.
In the European tradition, the season of Spring has been depicted predominantly with flowers rather than the blossom of trees. This may reflect local conditions, and the fact that flowering trees are relatively difficult to paint in the studio. Once landscape painting started to become more popular, and more of it was performed in front of the motif, this changed.
An early watercolour painting of exuberant blossom is that In a Shoreham Garden, painted by Samuel Palmer early in his career, in about 1830.
The Pre-Raphaelite movement placed emphasis on painting from life; when John Everett Millais came to paint Flora and her Spring, in 1856-59, he added subtle allusions to Botticelli’s famous Primavera and classical myth. The blossom here is on apple trees, which is probably second only to May/Hawthorn in the English countryside at this time of year.
At the far right, beside this group of elegant young women, is the scythe of Father Time. Two of the group have baskets full of Spring flowers, and three have flowers in their hair. Tempting though it may be to try to see three Graces and Flora herself, I fear that is as far as Millais went.
In the year that Charles-François Daubigny moved to Auvers-sur-Oise and founded the artists’ colony there, he painted this blossom-rich view of the Spring Landscape (1862). Vincent van Gogh was later to spend his final two months of painting near here.
In the final years of Jean-François Millet’s life, he painted a commissioned series including his startling study of light, Spring (1868-73). This features a double rainbow at the upper left, with fleeting sunshine flooding the centre. From the crops and seasonal flowers in the foreground to the inky black shower-clouds in the sky, this is a perfect summary of Spring in the countryside, here devoid of his toiling peasants.
I mentioned earlier that May or Hawthorn is probably the commonest of the tree blossoms seen in the English countryside. This is Edward Burne-Jones telling the story of The Beguiling of Merlin (1870-4). The wizard’s face is full of stupor as he is trapped limp in a hawthorn bush in full blossom. Nimue, with her Medusan hair, looks down at Merlin with a powerful stare, holding a book of spells high in front of her.
My favourite Impressionist painting of blossom has to be Alfred Sisley’s panorama of The Terrace at Saint-Germain, Spring, which he painted soon after he had moved to Marly-le-Roi in 1875.
Alice Havers’ Washerwomen, which given her tragically brief life must have been painted around 1880, shows fruit trees in blossom on the other side of the river.
Even the Naturalist Jean-Eugène Buland included blossom in his more populist paintings, such as this idyllic Innocent Wedding (1884). With the distant village, blossom, and a young couple arm in arm, it is deeply romantic.
The nineteenth century master of blossom has to be Vincent van Gogh. Like others of the time, he had become a collector of Japanese woodcut prints, and was fascinated by one of their dominant themes, cherry blossom.
Early signs appear in his painting of a Blossoming Chestnut Tree from 1887. This is one of his earliest paintings to show visible and organised brushstrokes, which are already starting to form whorls and swirls in places, including the background vegetation. The tree is only demarcated from that background – the grass below, and trees behind – by discontinuity in the structure and orientation of these marks.
Before he went to Arles, Vincent van Gogh had copied Utagawa Hiroshige’s woodblock print The Plum Orchard in Kameido. Shortly after his arrival there, in 1888, the fruit trees came into flower, and van Gogh painted a triptych intended for his brother Theo’s apartment, including The Pink Orchard above, and The Pink Peach Tree below.
Van Gogh’s approach to painting blossoming fruit trees was completely different from that of the Japanese prints. His trees are built anatomically, with trunk and branches drawn in outline, often using contrasting colour. Flowers are applied using impasto; sadly some of these have faded since, and some of the paint which now appears white or off-white was originally much pinker.
View of Arles, Flowering Orchards (1889) is a complex composition, with trunks in the foreground, fruit trees in flower in the middle distance, and the town of Arles behind, integrating his previous explorations of each element.
In the Northern Hemisphere we tend to forget the fact that the other half of the world has seasons and blossom too. Fortunately this didn’t escape the Australian Impressionist Charles Conder’s attention, in this plein air oil sketch of Herrick’s Blossoms from about 1888.
Among Carl Larsson’s many intimate views of life at home is this watercolour of his daughter under Apple Blossom from 1894. He uses his favourite colour contrast between the earth red of the barns behind and the pink of the girl’s bonnet, against the rich green vegetation around her.
Some sixty-five years after Samuel Palmer’s exuberant clouds of blossom, Paul Sérusier used a similar technique for The White Cow, from about 1895.