The nineteenth century saw a revolt against van Mander’s compositional rules in landscape painting. Among many changes were radical cropping of images, and the use of photographic lens effects such as wide-angle views, both of which I’ll cover in future articles. Here I look at one of the most radical of all, obstruction of distant views by a semi-rhythmic array of trees, as if the whole painting has been taken over by out-of-control repoussoir.
By the early nineteenth century, using foreground trees to frame a landscape had become so popular as to be a cliché. The occasional tree managed to make its way further towards the centre, but the canopies of those invaders were always parted to ensure the eye was drawn to a distant spire, city or mountain.
The earliest example I’ve seen is Camille Corot’s Castel Gandolfo, which he probably painted in a single plein air session in about 1826, during his first stay in Italy. The trees form an exaggerated repoussoir for the distant castle, and a small clump has made its way into the middle of the canvas. The figures in the foreground suggest the embedded mini-narratives typical of Poussin.
In about 1830, Corot painted Honfleur: Calvary just outside that town, on the southern bank of the Seine where it reaches the sea, south of Le Havre. Again, these trees simply won’t behave in normal repoussoir, but are marching across the view.
It was about fifteen years later that Corot painted The Toutain Farm, Honfleur (c 1845), perhaps intended for the Salon. Its trees are marvellous and all but obscure and upstage the farmhouse beyond.
As many artists before him, Camille Pissarro had used trees to frame his motifs in repoussouir, but during the late 1860s they started to invade more central areas of his canvas. In about 1869, in his Winter Landscape at Louveciennes, tree trunks and branches came to both expose small sections of the motif behind, and to hide that motif.
Around 1877, when Pissarro was probably in company with Paul Cézanne at Pontoise, the pair of them painted the same motif hidden or revealed by the same trees. Pissarro’s Côte des Bœufs, Pontoise (above) and Cézanne’s La Côte Saint-Denis à Pontoise (below) show how this revolt started to spread.
This technique became most characteristic of Pissarro, although Cézanne used it occasionally throughout the rest of his career. Cézanne shows little or no anatomical basis to the construction of his trees, whose branches are only loosely related to foliage, whereas Pissarro presents us with an essay on the form and structure of trunks and branches.
Cézanne simplifies throughout: he shows little or no texture, and more basic shadows, on the trunks, and the foliage is depicted as amorphous areas of leaf colour. Pissarro captures texture in everything, from the smoother surface of the track to the smaller branches. Although there are some apparent errors in depth order (where more distant branches are shown crossing in front of more proximate trunks), Cézanne’s painting has similar cues to depth as those of Pissarro’s.
Pissarro went on to paint many hundreds of landscapes in and around the village of Éragny, showing every subtlety of season, time of day, and light. And there’s no shortage of trees to spread themselves across some of his motifs, as in this view of the Meadow at Bazincourt from 1885.
Claude Monet generally kept his trees under better control, in his famous rhythmic sweeps of poplars for example. But in 1884, when he visited the seaside town of Bordighera just inside the Italian border on the Mediterranean coast, he lost control when capturing their weird sinuous forms above the town.
Two of Cézanne’s favourite themes in his later landscape paintings were the family mansion at Jas de Bouffan and the view from there of Mont Sainte-Victoire. In his Chestnut Trees at the Jas de Bouffan in Winter from 1885-86, he carefully defaced that holy mountain with some of his trees.
Vincent van Gogh’s Blue Train (1888) is one of his most complex compositions. This truncated avenue is seen from a conventional axial view, but instead of it leading a road into the distance, the visual horizon is formed by a blue train on top of a viaduct. Those trees all but obstruct our view of the train.
His View of Arles, Flowering Orchards from 1889 spreads trunks across the foreground, in front of fruit trees in flower in the middle distance, and the town of Arles behind.
Unlike Pissarro, Alfred Sisley’s trees seldom came to obstruct his views. However, in the winter of 1892, these barren poplars got the better of this canvas showing The Canal du Loing at Moret.
When Impressionism finally faded into its glorious sunset, the invasive trees still weren’t done. You’ll find them today in paintings by Peter Doig and others, still reminding us of the way that Corot and Pissarro tore up van Mander’s rules. I end with a profuse example from the tragically short career of the brilliant Canadian painter Tom Thomson.
Thomson made his sketch for this finished painting In the Northland (1915) during that winter, and it’s one of the few which he later worked up into a larger painting on canvas in his studio. The lake is here partially obscured by a palisade of young deciduous trees.
The odd thing about this prominent compositional form is that I’ve never come across its name. For want of anything better, I’ve suggested that it could be called grillage. I’m not sure that van Mander would have been impressed.