Relevant Trees in Art History


Got your holiday pine yet? This post is dedicated to all those tree martyrs that are annually chopped down, thrust into our homes, and garlanded with festive objects so we can celebrate Christmas, the Russian New Year, or a revived Pagan ritual. Though trees get special attention at this time of year, they are something of a powerful theme for many artists. Let’s take at tour of the arboreal obsessions and notable tree cameos in art history, with a few contemporary takes thrown in to spice things up. Our journey begins with the most perfect mulberry tree in the world… according to Van Gogh.

Vincent van Gogh, Mulberry Tree, October 1889, Oil on canvas, 21-1/4 x 25-1/2 in. (54 x 65 cm), Courtesy Norton Simon Art Foundation

Vincent van Gogh painted this vivid Mulberry Tree between epileptic attacks, at an asylum he checked himself into in Saint-Rémy. He wrote to his brother that it was his favorite of his Mulberry Trees, with leaves of yellow chrome, swirled with the tip of his brush handle. He was very, very fond of this Mulberry Tree.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, Wrapped Trees, Basel 1997-1998. Photo credit: Wolfgang Volz, Courtesy Taschen.

Art duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped 162 trees in translucent polyester, in Basel, Switzerland. As the wind blew, they billowed like alien clouds, undulated and changed color, depending on the light. And you thought it was all about orange.

Katsushika Hokusai, 東都墨田堤 (The Sumida Embankment in the Eastern Capital), c. 1831. Courtesy Wikipedia.

This is just one of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景, c. 1831) painted by the legendary Japanese ukiyo-e painter and printmaker of the Edo period. This one was painted in Mukōjima, Sumida-ku, Tōkyō-to. The blossoming trees are its centerpieces. Or the ladies. Or the trees. Or the ladies.

Ryan McGinley, Tree, #3200, 3c-print, 183 x 122 cm. Courtesy Saatchi Gallery.

This explains where photographer Ryan McGinley gets all those naked, nubile subjects. They grow on trees. Wink wink.

Salvador Dalí, TheThree Sphinxes of Bikini (1947).

The atomic explosions in Bikini inspired this landscape of humanoid, tree-like, mushroom-cloud-esque trinity. Trees are everywhere in Dalí’s work, whether they are persistently holding up time or taking the form of nude, contorted, sprouting, blobby bodies.

Roxy Paine’s Maelstrom on top of the Metropolitan Museum of Art circa 2009. Photo credit: C-Monster.

American sculptor Roxy Paine’s most recognizable works are these majestic, metallic limbs — tangled, spindling, weaving hybrids of branch and pipe. Unlike his public park sculptures that “grow” out of the ground, this particular roof topper emerges directly out of the concrete and actual spigots.

Edward Ruscha, A Few Palm Trees (1971): Island at Hollywood Blvd & La Brea Ave, S. W. Corner of McCadden Pl & Yucca St., N.W. Corner of Valley Oak Dr & Canyon Dr, N. W. Corner of Canon Dr & Park Way. Photo off-set.

Part of Edward Ruscha’s extensive, Southern California-loving oeuvre, these palm are just some of many, many specimens meticulously documented, isolated and identified by their Los Angeles cross street locations. Oh, the taxonomy!

The Blue Noses Group, An Epoch of Clemency, 2005, photograph, h: 75 x w: 100 cm / h: 29.5 x w: 39.4 in, Courtesy Galerie Diehl.

The most famous of contemporary Russian provocateur art groups, the Blue Noses subvert the olde, beloved, humdrum Slavic motif of birch trees with this sexy series of kissing policemen, an homage to Banksy (also available in ballerinas).

Kiki Smith, Nest and Trees, 1997, 20 x 22 in. (50.8 x 55.9 cm). Stewart S. MacDermott Fund, 1999 (1999.64) © 1997 Kiki Smith.

This is one of Kiki Smith’s computer experiments of the ’90s — scanned, manipulated, ink-jet printed polyptych of black trunks and branches knotted with nests. Chilly.

Egon Schiele, Autumn Trees, 1911, oil on canvas, 79.5 x 80 cm.

These captivating, delicate trees by Egon Schiele echo the charged, spindly limbs of his nude models and self-portraits. Note that the stilts connected to their trunks: These trees are saplings. Was Schiele always drawn to youth?

Do you have a favorite from art history or contemporary art? Plant it in our comment section.