Rhythm in paintings: Poplars and people

Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), Rhythmic Landscape on Lake Geneva (1908), oil on canvas, 67 x 91 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In yesterday’s article about rhythm in paintings, I introduced some of the purposes for the more or less regular repetition of forms. In avenues which recede into the image, rhythm strengthens perspective and depth. Rhythmic forms crossing the image are more varied in their purpose, and became complex in the landscapes of Sisley and Pissarro. Then for a couple of years, Claude Monet painted some of his finest landscapes of rhythmic arrays of poplar trees.

Claude Monet, Poplars on the Bank of the Epte, Autumn (1891) W1297, oil on canvas, 100 x 65 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. WikiArt.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), Poplars on the Bank of the Epte, Autumn (1891) W1297, oil on canvas, 100 x 65 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. WikiArt.

In 1891, Monet painted his first formal series of rhythmic poplars, including Poplars on the Bank of the Epte, Autumn (1891): eleven paintings in all. These articulate the contrasts in form within each tree, with sections of bare trunk, and those of extensive canopy, the colours cast by light and those of the leaves themselves, the rhythmic assembly of the line of trees, their reflections in the water, and the formation of the line of poplars into sweeping curves in depth.

Claude Monet, The Three Trees, Autumn (1891) W1308, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.
Claude Monet (1840-1926), The Three Trees, Autumn (1891) W1308, oil on canvas, 92 x 73 cm, Private collection. WikiArt.

A branch of that main series consists of six further paintings of poplars, also completed in 1891, of which The Three Trees, Autumn (1891) is an example. These explore the same themes but with different emphasis within them.

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Claude Monet (1840-1926), Poplars on the Bank of the Epte (1892), oil on canvas, 88 × 93 cm, Private collection. Wikipaintings.org, via Wikimedia Commons.

For a couple of years, Monet couldn’t stop painting poplars. My personal favourite is this, Poplars on the Bank of the Epte (1892), although it has dropped the reflections. It is, perhaps, the quintessential Impressionist painting of trees, and thoroughly rhythmic.

Few of Paul Cézanne’s paintings show any signs of regular rhythm, except for one which is dominated by a decaying aqueduct.

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Paul Cézanne, L’aqueduc et l’écluse or Le Moulin brûlé à Maisons-Alfort (1894, or 1895-8) R765, oil on canvas, 73 x 92 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Cézanne’s Aqueduct and Lock, or The Burnt Mill at Maisons-Alfort, painted either in 1894 or 1895-8, imposes its rhythm across the width of the canvas in a series of columns which in fact lie at different depths. These are echoed by the reflections which seem to be extensions of the physical structures.

In the first of these two articles, I showed one of Ferdinand Hodler’s early landscape paintings with both formal symmetry and marked rhythm. A couple of years later, Hodler took to arranging figures in rhythm.

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Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), The World-Weary (1892), oil and mixed media on canvas, 150 × 294 cm, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

From 1891, Hodler worked on a series of paintings showing tired-out men. The World-Weary (1891-92) was another important early work on his road to Parallelism, with its emphasis on the symmetry and rhythms seen in society.

A decade later, he painted his second version of The Chosen One for Anton Loew, a famous physician whose lavish private clinic cared for the rich and famous, including Gustav Mahler and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Hodler had painted the first version between 1893-94.

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Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), The Chosen One (version 2) (1903), tempera and oil on canvas, 219 × 296 cm, Osthaus-Museum, Hagen, Germany. Wikimedia Commons.

The Chosen One (version 2) (1903) shows Hodler’s high Parallelism, with six women dressed identically in light blue gowns forming a rhythmic and near-symmetrical array. Each has angel’s wings, and their feet are raised above the floral alpine meadow. At their centre is a nude boy with a monastic haircut, apparently praying or worshipping by a small and barren sacred tree.

The symmetry is less formal than previously: Hodler has not arranged the angels in matched pairs, and each has slightly different hair, although all are brunettes. Four of them hold flowers, which also add to the compositional informality.

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Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), Rhythmic Landscape on Lake Geneva (1908), oil on canvas, 67 x 91 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

Hodler also painted Parallelist landscapes, among which his Rhythmic Landscape on Lake Geneva (1908) is his clearest example of rhythm. This was a second version of a view which he had previously painted in 1905, when he wrote “This is perhaps the landscape in which I applied my compositional principles most felicitously.”

Most of his symmetry and rhythm is obvious; what may not be so apparent are the idiosyncratic reflections seen on the lake’s surface. The gaps in the train of cumulus clouds here become dark blue pillars, which are optically impossible, but are responsible for much of the rhythm in the lower half of the painting.

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Ferdinand Hodler (1853–1918), Einmütigkeit (Unanimity) (1913), mural, dimensions not known, Neue Rathaus, Hannover, Germany. Image by Bernd Schwabe, via Wikimedia Commons.

In 1913, rhythmic figures came to dominate his large mural of Unanimity (1913). At its centre is the figure of Dietrich Arnsborg (1475-1558), who on 26 June 1533 brought together an assembly of the (male) citizens of Hanover in its market square, by the old town hall. Together they swore to adhere to the new Reformation doctrine of Martin Luther, as shown here in their unanimous raising of right hands.

Rhythmic figures and other objects were sometimes used in Symbolist painting. Here are a couple of examples painted by Carlos Schwabe.

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Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926), Evening Bells (1891), watercolour, dimensions not known, Museu Nacional de Belas Artes (MNBA), Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Wikimedia Commons.

Evening Bells, a watercolour from 1891, is an unusual composite of three different views: dominating the right and lower areas is a view of a belltower, with a rhythmic series of angels emerging from one of the windows and flying downwards. At the lower left is an aerial view of a contemporary French town, and at the upper left a coastal view with water lapping on a flat shore.

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Carlos Schwabe (1866–1926), The Virgin with Lilies (1899), further details not known. Wikimedia Commons.

Schwabe employs more complex rhythms in the flowers which sweep through The Virgin with Lilies from 1899.

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Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), Nude with Radiator (1928), oil on canvas, 59.6 x 59.6 cm, Private collection. The Athenaeum.

If there’s one artist of the early twentieth century who you wouldn’t expect to use regular rhythm it’s Pierre Bonnard, yet here, in his Nude with Radiator from 1928 is a passage with strong rhythm.

My final example brings us full circle to the dense, sweeping rhythms of weapons painted by Albrecht Altdorfer in 1518.

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Joseph Stella (1877–1946), Palm Tree and Bird (1927-28), oil on canvas, 137.2 x 102.2 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

In the 1920s, Joseph Stella developed rhythmic palm structures, in Palm Tree and Bird from 1927-28. These were to be a recurrent feature in many of his later works.