Throughout this (not quite a) year of tree following, I have found myself thinking about paintings – and about a specific group of painters, out of the many who have painted trees. I suspect this is largely because I’ve been following a downy birch this year, and many of the Russian nineteenth-century painters who were known as the Itinerants gave birches their meticulous attention. I discovered these painters completely accidentally, as a just-graduated incomer to London who was missing the hills and the woods and the undomesticated trees.
And I think they produced some of the best paintings of trees ever.
This is by Isaak Levitan, it’s called Autumn and was painted in 1889.
The ‘Itinerants’ were members of the Society for Circulating Art Exhibitions, which was founded in 1870. They exhibited in Moscow and St Petersburg, but also considered it important to take their art outside the two major cities in ‘itinerant’ exhibitions, hence their name. My books about them are old and date from Soviet times, so stress their ‘realism’ and ‘democracy’ (they were both, sort of), but let’s ignore that. There are historical paintings, genre paintings, urban landscapes and portraits, but for me the most wonderful are the paintings of the countryside, generally (though not exclusively, despite what Wikipedia says – Shishkin worked in Switzerland too, for instance) the Russian countryside.
Some of the Itinerants, like Levitan, were rather more impressionistic than others. I’m particularly fond of Kuindzhi’s Birch-tree Grove (1879). This is almost heading towards abstraction – look at the pattern of clear water on the stream’s surface, or the bright leaves against the shadowy wood:
But the king of Itinerant tree painters was – almost undoubtedly – Ivan Shishkin. He’s a bit too much of a realist for my artistic taste, often, but there’s no doubt that he was a stunning tree painter.
This is probably his most famous painting, from 1878. It’s called Rye, but the trees are just as important as the crop…
and here’s his take on a forest in winter, from 1890:
He must have frozen, working on this. I’m feeling chilly just looking at it, though that could be because the heating’s clicked off.
For me, living here in Snowdonia, this painting from 1893 – rather gloomily entitled Forest Cemetery, but hey ho – is the one most reminiscent of the woods around me (that’s down to the moss). I hope tree following continues into next year, because next year I must get out of the garden and into the local woods…
Mind you, there are no pines in the nearest woods which are just up the hill a couple of hundred metres away from the house. I’ll need some paintings of old oaks and beeches instead.
Many thanks, again, to Lucy at Loose and Leafy for getting me started on this tree-following lark. I have so enjoyed it, and have learned a lot. Among other things, that taking time to quietly observe something over a period of time is always repaid. (Sorry about the split infinitive in that last sentence, guess the grammar police will hunt me down.) That, I think, is another reason why I’ve been thinking about paintings, because if there’s one thing that plein-air painters do, it’s meticulously observe what they see in the landscape around them. And that links me back to my friend, mentioned briefly in the previous post: he taught me a lot about observation and taking time. Valuable lessons.
And one more painting, to leave on. Another Levitan, this time in a more domestic setting and at the other end of winter, but still with birches – March: