An American poet wrote the famous lines: “I think that I shall never see, A poem lovely as a tree”. Many poems have been written about trees and just as many pictures painted of them. Trees live longer than people, who have always depended on their various uses. We find all sorts of meanings in trees. That is why we talk of ‘The Tree of Knowledge’ and rising successfully ‘to the top of the tree’. Yet we can also be ‘stuck up a gum tree’. Artists enjoy painting trees; for one thing, unlike an artist’s model, they cannot get bored and run away. They may stand still, but the wind blows them and their appearance alters with the rhythm of the seasons. In spring they are in flower, which turns to fruit. In autumn their colours change. In the winter they can look like bits of nature’s sculpture, with branches sticking up like arms appealing to heaven.
The pictures here are painted in very different ways. Three are by French artists. JEAN BAPTISTE COROT (1796-1875) closely observed nature, while HENRI ROUSSEAU (1844-1910) saw jungles in his imagination, full of strange animals. PAUL CEZANNE (1839-1906) painted the avenue of chestnut trees in his garden near Aix-en-Provence many times. He also painted the same mountains and rocks again and again, saying that underneath their natural shapes there were geometric patterns that could express deeper truths. In 1888 the Dutchman VINCENT VAN GOGH (1853-90) wrote from Arles to his brother Theo that he had a craze for painting orchards in blossom. His painting of a peach tree in the South of France is light and cheerful, compared with the eerie-looking forest at Juan Les Pins by the Italian GIORGIO DE CHIRICO (1888-1978). Many English landscape painters have had a special interest in trees. JOHN CONSTABLE (1776-1837) is probably the most famous. In this century GRAHAM SUTHERLAND (1903-80) made countless studies of trees and woodland paths. He used some of them in his huge tapestry for Coventry Cathedral, designed when this was re-built after the Second World War. IVON HITCHENS (1893-1982) turned views of Sussex woods into abstract patterns of colour, showing that the artist’s eye can make many discoveries in something as simple as a tree.