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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Trees in Art
By Philip Gilbert Hamerton (1834–1894)
 
From ‘Landscape’

IT may, however, not be absolutely safe to conclude that the Greeks had no landscape painting, because we find only conventional and decorative representations of trees on vases. If it is true that the mural paintings at Herculaneum and Pompeii were not always essentially modern at the time when they were painted upon the wall, but rather in many cases copies and reminiscences of much more ancient art, it would seem possible that the painters of antiquity may have at least gone so far in the direction of true landscape painting as to have attained the notion of mass in foliage. Some of the Pompeian pictures give large-leaved shrubs seen near the figures, with much of the liberty and naturalness in this disposal of the leaves that were afterwards fully attained by the Venetians; whilst many of the landscapes really show foliage in mass, not so learnedly as in modern landscape painting, but quite with the knowledge that masses had a light side, and a dark side, and a roundness that might be painted without insisting on the form of each leaf. The same observation of mass is to be seen in the Campanian interpretation of mountains, which, though extremely simple and primitive, and without any of the refinements of mountain form that are perceptible to ourselves, exhibit nevertheless the important truth that the facets of a mountain catch the light.  1
  In mediæval landscape painting, trees were of great importance from the first, on account of the free decorative inventiveness of the mediæval mind, that exercised itself in illumination and tapestry and in patterns for dress, for all of which leaves and flowers were the best natural materials or suggestions. The history of tree drawing in the Middle Ages is very like its history in Greece. As Apollo and Semele were placed on each side the laurel, of which the leaves were few and distinctly individualized, so Adam and Eve were placed on each side the apple-tree, which was often represented as a bare thin stem branching into a sort of flat oval at the top that was filled with distinct leaves and fruit, and sometimes even surrounded by a line. In other drawings or paintings the tree was allowed to develop itself more freely; but the artist still attended to the individual leaves, and the tree was usually kept small, like the young trees in our gardens. Even in hunting scenes where a forest is represented, as in the manuscript of the hunting-book by Gaston Phœbus, 1 the trees have short bare trunks and a few leaves, and are about the height of a man on horseback, often not so high. They answer, in short, to the trees in boxes of toys for children, except that they are more prettily designed.  2
  The nearest approach to foliage attained by the mediæval love of the distinct leaf is in the backgrounds to tapestries, and decorative paintings designed on the same principles, where the leaves, although individually perfect, are so multiplied that the mere numbers make them appear innumerable. In this way the distinct designers of the Middle Ages attained a sort of infinity, though it is not the same as the real infinity of nature where details cannot be counted. One of the best examples of this is the background to Orcagna’s fresco of the ‘Dream of Life’ in the Campo Santo of Pisa, where the orange-trees stand behind the figures and fill the upper part of the picture from side to side with their dense foliage studded with fruit, and between their thin stems every inch of space is filled with a diaper of flat green leaves to represent the close shrubbery or underwood in the garden. This is still quite mediæval in spirit, because the leaves are distinctly drawn, and all are countable, however numerous; they are also decorative, as primitive art was sure to be.  3
  It is difficult to fix with precision the date when the idea of mass in foliage began to acquire importance, and I know that if I give a date, some earlier examples may be found which would seem to throw it farther back in art history; but occasional precursors do not invalidate the rights of a century in which an idea first takes effectual root. There is a very remarkable landscape background by Giovanni Bellini in his picture of ‘The Death of Peter Martyr’ in our National Gallery, the most elaborate example of tree painting among our older pictures. The idea is to show trees in a wood, with stems crossing each other and supporting an immense quantity of highly wrought foliage. Well, in this picture the foliage is not flat; there is a sense of mass; and yet to a modern eye it is easily visible that Bellini was still hampered by the mediæval interest in the leaf, and driven by that to bestow prodigious pains upon the individual leaves that he portrayed by thousands. In the same fifteenth century a manuscript of the Epistles of Ovid, now in the National Library of Paris, was illuminated with subjects that have landscape backgrounds of a very advanced kind; and here the foliage is completely massed, with considerable breadth of shaded parts and only touches for the lights.  4
  We may remember, then, that classical tree painting began with the stem and a reduced number of distinct leaves, but attained masses of foliage in the Campanian paintings or earlier, and that mediæval painting began in the same way with the leaf and the stem, but led to masses about the fifteenth century, after passing through an intermediate stage in which there was a great multiplicity of distinctly painted leaves.  5
 
Note 1. The book is entitled ‘Des Deduitz de la Chasse des Bestes Sauvages,’ and is in the National Library at Paris. [back]
 
 
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