This important and charming book examines the depiction of woodlands and individual trees in the visual arts and poetry during the long Renaissance and beyond. It posits that in former times human imagination regularly endowed woodlands and their artistic representation with exceptional spiritual and moral significance. Robbed by urban realities of the ability to understand trees and woods in this transcendental sense, today’s viewers and readers have a hard time appreciating the artistic representation of sylvan subjects. Woodland Imagery aims to acquaint its readers with the lost spiritual side of trees and the forest by considering painting and poetry in concert. “What is novel…in the present volume,” its author tells us, is “the intermingling of the literary and pictorial traditions of woodland imagery with an analysis of what these representations reveal about woodland elements that are no longer part of the world in which we live.” (14)
Woodland Imagery consists of an introduction laying out the book’s central theme followed by ten brief chapters (largely case studies) and an epilogue. Treated therein are subjects as interesting and varied as Albrecht Dürer’s fascination with the linden tree, the ideas implied by the rich greenery of Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the significance of reeds in a landscape by Jan Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens, and the underlying message of the contemporary Kindle logo. The book’s individual pieces cohere gracefully in part owing to their methodological kinship: informed iconographic analysis and sensitive reading of text and image blend throughout, often to luminous effect. The book does not pound away at any one main thesis but weaves its way elegantly from topic to topic. As one reads through the chapters, however, important unifying themes emerge.
First, the book makes the case that woodland imagery in Northern art was shaped in part by poetic traditions rooted in classical antiquity. The task of landscapists in the early modern period, it tells us, was “to express in painting the…sylvan charms that struck the poet’s fancy.” (23) Doing so required painters “to acquire the knack of inventing sylvan motifs that echo…well-known passages in the literature…” (23) As evidence, the author brings to bear varied examples of visual images that, she demonstrates, reflect antecedents in poetical writing. She shows in one chapter, for example, that the treatment of flora in river-scenes by Peter Paul Rubens, Jan Brueghel, and Claude Lorrain echo poetic imagery rooted in Virgil’s Aeneid and Georgics, in another that the taste for pictures of deep Northern woods was stimulated by elegiac appreciation of such places by the Desert Fathers and later hermit saints, and in yet another that the rise of the simple wooded landscape in painting owes much to the poetical treatment of unruly trees and undergrowth by the likes of Statius, Virgil, Poliziano, and Dryden.
Whereas Northern woodland painting takes cues from poetry, the book also suggests that poetic evocations of trees could grow out of painting. John Evelyn’s memorable appraisal of trees as “transcendental perfections” (Sylva, 1664) might have been inspired, we read, by landscape drawings of Claude, in which “the transition from a controlled pen to the liberty of spontaneous washes becomes an analogue for the kind of dissolution that is the essence of [arboreal] transcendence.” (57) Prosperetti does not contend that alliances between painting and poetry inform every image of woodlands in Northern art equally and is wise not to do so. Many sylvan landscapes produced in the early modern Netherlands, those showcasing mining operations, furnaces, kilns, brigands, and marauding soldiers, for example, seem more closely allied to topical issues and old visual tropes than to poetic traditions rooted in the ancient past. She convincingly demonstrates, however, that poetic inventions lurk within the genre, often in unexpected places, and can contribute to the spiritual depth of the imagery.
Second, but no less significantly, the book underlines the crucial importance of Italian landscape painting (and landscape painting made by non-Italians in Italy) for the development of Northern tree and woodland imagery. It expands upon earlier scholarship in crediting Titian’s representation of trees, such as the gnarled example recorded in a chiaroscuro woodcut after Titian by Domenico Campagnola (fig. 10), for inspiring Peter Bruegel the Elder’s “new, naturalistic standard for woodland imagery” (23) in Brabant. It devotes a chapter to Tivoli-inspired landscape painting which, Prosperetti tells us, found its culmination in the art of Claude Lorrain and Joseph Mallord William Turner. It makes clear the seminal role of Claude’s Mediterranean-inspired “lyrical naturalism” (14) in informing woodland imagery across the Alps and across the seas. These observations, which set the familiar trope of Northern-European dominance in the field of landscape representation on its head, are both illuminating and salutary.
What then are the uniquely Northern contributions to woodland imagery in Northern art? The book does not address this question head on but provides important hints about what they might be. More than their colleagues elsewhere in Europe, Northern painters turned individual trees into esteemed subjects of art. Albrecht Dürer portrayed linden trees individualistically, Prosperetti tells us, giving them independent personalities formerly reserved for human subjects. Jacob van Ruisdael and others walked this process further, converting broken, dying, and regenerating trees into metaphors for human existence. In the Northern woodland scene, the senescence of trees became as important a theme as the senescence of men and women. Northern painters also pioneered artistic investigation into the social lives of trees. They represented trees bending towards one another “as if to exchange a delicate kiss or solemn vow.” (11) They showed them assembled in copses – islands of trees in pastures – where they seem to find strength in community. They joined the dainty varieties into sisterhoods reminiscent of playful dryads. They entwined differing species into massive co-dependent bodies, configurations that Prosperetti reads as allegories of perfect societies and terms “Republic(s) of Trees”. (73)
Woodland Imagery is a beautiful piece of writing. Akin to the living objects that it treats, the book branches out unconfinedly from its core, moving towards the light along varied and lively paths. The author writes in economical sentences pleasing in cadence and rhythm. Her descriptions of woodland paintings are notably sensitive, delightful, and revealing. Academic jargon and endnotes are held to a minimum. These features make the book a joy to read accessible to a broad audience.
David A. Levine
Connecticut State University, emeritus