This weekend we go in search of warmer climes again, this time through paintings of palm trees, a reliable indication of better temperatures. After all, what tropical paradise or sun-drenched beach isn’t rich with palms? This first article looks at secular images, and tomorrow’s sequel appropriately looks at their many appearances in religious paintings.
Palms, of the family Arecaceae, are uncommon in the areas like the Roman Campagna in which landscape painting flourished from the eighteenth century, so seldom appear in secular paintings until the nineteenth century, when they became popular plants to put in glasshouses, and artists travelled more widely to paint landscapes in the ‘Orient’.
Indoor palms became something of a status symbol. During the nineteenth century, increasing manufacture of glass panes made glasshouses and ‘conservatories’ more affordable, to the point where everyone who was anyone was growing palms at home. They were also imported and grown in the new coastal resorts across northern Europe, where they gave towns a Mediterranean appearance and vouched for their warm climate.
When Auguste Renoir visited Algeria in 1881, he painted this Field of Banana Trees, in the middle of which stands a single proud palm. Renoir may not have realised it at the time, but this grove of banana palms is highly atypical of North Africa, although it gave him a wonderful opportunity to assemble brushstrokes to form its vegetation. When exhibited later in Paris, Manet himself praised the painting.
Berthe Morisot was more confined to life in the modern conservatory, where a young woman sits Reading. Her head is slightly bowed as she looks intently at the book she holds in both hands, just above her lap. Cropped at the left edge is a large birdcage with golden bars. Behind her are the low wall and large windows of the conservatory, the vertical of a window frame passing upwards to the top of the painting from the right edge of the chair back. Outside there are rich green palms above low trellis, with further foliage and blue flowers behind them.
Thomas Eakins’ portrait of the singer Weda Cook (1867-1937) as The Concert Singer (1890-92) was his first full-length portrait of a woman. Known for her powerful contralto voice, Eakins reduced distractions so that the painting is almost exclusively about Cook. There is just the glimpse of a potted palm, the disembodied conductor’s hand and baton, and a bouquet of roses thrown at her feet.
In the late nineteenth century, the south of France became increasingly popular with artists, among them Renoir. Palm trees are most frequent in Europe around the rim of the Mediterranean, and in 1902 he painted The Palm, a fine specimen standing outside a villa near Le Cannet.
Pierre Bonnard also moved south from Paris, and spent much of his later life living in Le Cannet, where he painted at least two variations of this view of a Pink Palm at Le Cannet (1924).
I suspect that this painting of The Palm from 1926 was made from the Bonnards’ garden, or nearby. The woman in the foreground, holding up fruit, is pale and ghostly against the dazzling light and colour of the houses behind her.
If Renoir and Bonnard were enthusiastic about palms, the American painter Joseph Stella became obsessed with their form.
Stella’s Purissima from 1927 places a mystical woman between the two sacred Ibis birds. In the background is the Bay of Naples, with Mount Vesuvius at the right. Echoing the woman’s head to each side is a stylised palm tree, which reappear in many of his later works.
In his Palm Tree and Bird from 1927-28, he develops the geometric rhythm of the palm leaves.
The following year, his Neapolitan Song (1929) returns its waterbird and palm into the foreground of another view of the quietly smoking volcano of Vesuvius.