04 October 2014

The Popular Poplar

Were there poplar trees in the mythical world of the Greek god Apollo? The terrain of Mt. Parnassus, Apollo's earthly home, is rugged, suggesting great age.  But it suited the taste of the arch-Romantic painter Gustave Moreau to imagine poplars there. And it suits our imagination too, to think of  the youthful (beardless) Apollo  surrounded by lush greenery. From the Roman poet Ovid, in his Metamorphoses, we have the fullest account of the adventures of Apollo and Pegasus, the winged horse who created the Hippocrene springs with a well-aimed kick of the hoof. 

Poplars and art have had a long and intimate relationship.  Before canvas became the preferred medium for painting in the 16th century, artists painted on wooden panels made from poplar.  That most famous painting of the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa was painted in oil on white Lombardy poplar.

Now, another question. Why are there so many poplar trees in French painting?  The answer is more than botanical.   Because the poplar, or peuplier in French, shares its etymological ancestry with the Latin word populus.  When the Revolution began in 1789, this... tree became the symbol of the new republic,  the “arbre de la liberte” (the tree of liberty) Louis XVI must have understood the symbolism when he bowed to pressure to preside at a ceremony when a poplar was planted in sight of his royal palace.  After Louis was cut down by the guillotine in 1793, the tree was cut down, apparently being one of those trees that grows “only when watered by the blood of tyrants.” 

For several decades, the symbolic value of the poplar was jealously guarded by whatever regime was in power.  After a man in the Vaucluse cut down a poplar, sixty-three  neighbors who concealed his identity from the  authorities were murdered, their houses burned, and their fields poisoned with salt.  When Napoleon declared himself Emperor, he took care to re-christened it as the arbre Napleon.

Poplars were planted along rural roads and at the entrances of estates alike.  Their stately rows were visually impressive and served usual functions: as windshields, and markers of property lines, and when planted along river banks,  poplars provided a measure of  flood control.  As one of his early official actions, when Louis XVIII reinstated the monarchy he ordered a tree census that counted at least sixty thousand poplars in France.   But with passing time the popular poplar blended into the landscape as one among many trees.

And then there was Claude Monet.  Who better than an Impressionist to experiment with the effects of light in changing weather by painting the same scene again and again?   By the summer of 1891 when Monet began his series of polar paintings (twenty-five in all) he had been collecting Japanese prints for two decades;  in photographs the walls of his home at Giverny were covered with them.  Théodore Duret, a journalist and art critic who had visited Japan in 1871-72,  wrote that Monet’s poplar series was inspired by Hiroshige's Numazu, Yellow Dusk, a work with a sweeping curve of trees,  emphasizing the decorative patterns  found in nature.  Whether or not Duret was correct, you can see what he meant by looking at the paintings.

The maxim that we should not assume that a painter did not see what (s)he did not paint applies to Monet's poplars.  Painting on his bateau atelier, a houseboat anchored in the river, Monet would have viewed the shore from a low perspective, but stretching the trees off the top and bottom of the canvas was  his way of intensifying their dramatic profiles against the sky.    The triangular wedge of trees in the background was, in fact, poplars lining the road; in Monet hands this accident of landscape becomes an elegant decorative gesture, one that changes with the seasons from summer to autumn.

When we refer to these trees as Monet's, it was more than a figure of speech at the time..  The poplars were located on communal land near the village of Liimetz, just upstream from Giverny.  It was a marshy area, made intriguing visually by  the way the river Epte curved back on itself in an s-shaped curve, bot once but twice. Shortly after Monet began to paint them, village officials announced plans to auction the trees off, having planted them as a cash crop that was now ready to be harvested.   On July 28, Monet anguished over the “quantities of new canvases I must finish.”  His pleas to the mayor of Limetz failed, Monet arranged to purchase the trees with a partner who would delay the harvest until Monet had finished.  Meaning that soon after the paint had dried, no one could go to see what the artist had painted.

It is charming to imagine Monet leaving home before sunrise to scout a good view, loosening  the rope that moored his rowboat to shore, and then rowing upstream through the mist to the spot in the Epte where his houseboat sat at anchor.   Charming and not far-fetched, as Monet has left us evidence of what he saw on his way to Limetz, like Morning on the Seine near Giverny (1897) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  That he brought his canvases back to the studio for finishing takes nothing away from them.  Among the pleasures of looking at  Monet's  poplar pictures we can see not only the passing of time but the mapping of history on the French landscape.

1. Gustave Moreau (1826-1898) - Apollo and Pegasus, Musee Gustave Moreau, Paris.
2. Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) - Canteleu pres de Rouen, Musee du Petit Palais, Paris.
3. Camille Pissarro - Poplars - Sunset at Eragny, 1894, Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City.
4. Claude Monet - Poplars - Grey Weather, 1891, private collection.
5. Claude Monet - Les quatres arbres (The Four Trees), 1891, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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