The Romantic landscape artists of the 18th and 19th century were so obsessed with nature and the skies above that in 1856 critic John Ruskin called the frenzy “modern-day cloud worship.” They also saw subjects for expressing the spiritual, giving meaning to each tree and boulder. In A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany, which opened last month at the Morgan Library & Museum, that fusion of an intense study of the natural world with the imagination is explored in 37 drawings.
As with the Victorian language of flowers, specific trees have their own symbolism. Reverend William Gilpin, an artist and cleric, stated it “is no exaggerated praise to call a tree the grandest, and most beautiful of all products of the earth.” In the form of the tree, artists found expressions of life, death, and the great beyond.
A Dialogue with Nature includes work both from the Morgan’s works on paper holdings, and the Courtauld Gallery in London, and emphasizes this “cult of nature.” Here are some of the meanings of trees in Romantic art that are evoked in the exhibition, as well as in the landscape tradition of the time.
One of the frequent, ominous tree symbols is the blasted tree. Here a poor tree has been terribly wounded, perhaps by a recent lightning strike, although it’s often an old battle scar. What’s important is that the tree is usually still living, leaves clinging to its battered branches. To the Romantics it represented the cycle of nature, from death to life, all at once. It could also be a foreboding symbol for those venturing into the wild, a disruption of the pastoral peace, as the wrath of God can fell even these timber giants. In Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Victor Frankenstein declares himself a “blasted tree” in regards to his own destruction.
The Lone Tree
The blasted tree often crosses over with the lone tree. Here Caspar David Friedrich has depicted a survivor. Its peak is fractured, yet it has endured. Below it stands a solitary shepherd, and there’s a subtext that as this man lives and dies, the tree will continue in its longer life. Also notice the church off in the distance, dwarfed by the tree. Friedrich wasn’t diminishing the spiritual, he was showing that it was deeper and more universal than the faith of one church.
What Caspar David Friedrich really adored were dead trees in cemeteries, which he captured with exceptional gloominess. A fairly evident symbol, the dead trees stood for, well, death. Positioned alongside ruins, like in “Abbey among Oak Trees” (1809–10), they were also a reminder of how even the grandest of monuments fade. Friedrich wasn’t always so heavy-handed. Below in “Landscape on Rügen with Shepherds and Flocks” (1809/1810), included in the A Dialogue with Nature exhibition, just has the dead tree snapped to a stump haunting the foreground of an otherwise cheery landscape, a small memento mori.
Reaching to the Sky
Another artist to use the trees as a spiritual symbol was Joseph Anton Koch, who in this 1830 landscape has trees reaching up to a rainbow representing the heavens. It’s an idea he repeated several times, evoking the connection of heaven to earth, and our striving between the two.
Trees could also be more subtle symbols, such as in this 1754 portrait of the Gravenor family by Thomas Gainsborough. In this square-shaped painting, taking a sort of pre-Instagram appreciation for the balance of that frame, Gainsborough emphasized the connection and harmony of the family with two trees entwined behind the parents.
Finally, there is the rooted strength of trees that the Romantics loved to depict in an almost anthropomorphized way, where the bark appears moving and living. Here in an 1828 drawing from A Dialogue with Nature, Samuel Palmer has captured the sturdy, twisting trunk of an oak. Along with its symbolism of endurance, it may have also reflected on the strength of the country it thrived in: England.
The trees are just a part of the greater symbolism of Romantic landscapes, but through the carefully depicted nature, reinterpreted in studios through the imagination, there is a window into the powerful meaning of nature to these artists.
A Dialogue with Nature: Romantic Landscapes from Britain and Germany continues at the Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 7.