Rhythm – the more or less regular repetition of form – is one of the most distinctive compositional techniques in painting. Its use, in figurative paintings at least, goes back to the Renaissance and before, but it didn’t become prominent in landscape painting until the nineteenth century. Here it’s most commonly generated by the trunks of trees, but at its zenith, in Ferdinand Hodler’s Parallelism, almost every form from clouds down have a strong rhythm stamped on them, the visual equivalent of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, first performed in 1913.
Camille Pissarro’s Hoar Frost at Ennery from 1873 shows its rhythm in a subtle way, in the cast shadows of trees, which also change colour depending on where they fall.
Rest along the Stream, Edge of the Wood (1878), one of Alfred Sisley’s finest paintings, and one of the great landscapes of the century, is a good example. It features multiple stands of trees, each of a different species: the line of birch trees in the foreground beats a regular rhythm which recedes towards the vanishing point. On the opposite bank five pollards are more irregular and enhance natural appearance. The lines of the trees, stream, and the gash of sky all lead the eye to the distant bridge, and the figure of a woman, her back against the foot of one of the birches in the foreground.
Late in his career, Sisley found another complex rhythm sweeping along the banks of The Canal du Loing at Moret (1892), in this thoroughly wintry scene.
It was Claude Monet who was the master of the rhythmic poplars.
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.
A branch of that main series consists of six further paintings of poplars, also completed in 1891, of which The Three Trees, Autumn is an example. These explore the same themes but with different emphasis within them.
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.
The eycatching geometry of Théo van Rysselberghe’s Canal in Flanders (1894) combines radical perspective projection, the intense rhythm of the trees, and meticulous reflections, together making this one of the great Divisionist paintings.
A few artists have made rhythm a central feature of their style. Ferdinand Hodler started in his early landscapes, which were moving away from the initial influence of Alexandre Calame’s Alpine views.
Hodler’s Road to Evordes from about 1890 is an excellent example of the use of rhythm and symmetry to reinforce depth.
This reached an extreme in Hodler’s 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. Reflections are another compositional device which are most frequently seen in landscape rather than figurative painting.