Walking through the Kimbell in Fort Worth recently I had trees on my mind. I remembered the shaded lawn and small forest at the north end of the building, that’s now a construction site. The trees have made way for a museum expansion. But never mind that, there’s a always a chance those are small details that must give way to another vision.
With that in mind, I started to notice trees in some of the paintings. The tree wasn’t the first thing I noticed in Portrait of Mary Sartoris by Frederic Leighton. Sartoris was the daughter of a an opera singer who provided Leighton with an entree into fashionable London society.
The image is stunning and brimming with youthful confidence. The red and black surround the pearl white skin. Then you notice the tree. It’s almost as if in a confident strut, the world collapses behind Mary. If this were a motion picture the tree would have fallen with a loud thump, but the Mary doesn’t so much as turn her head. Her intense gaze at us is not distracted or broken. Of course this is as seen through modern eyes.
In 1860 the painter didn’t have the advantage of motion pictures, and so may not have had such drama in mind. According to the label, in this painting Mary is aged about 15 years and the scene is the family’s country residence in Hampshire. The fallen tree suggests the passage of time and mortality, accentuating her fragile beauty.
Another tree we encounter is Weeping Willow by Claude Monet. The artist painted several of these trees possibly as a mournful response to World War I. Monet could often hear artilery fire from his home in Giverny, but refused to leave.
This painting to me conveys well that stubborn pride. There is sadness, and firmness. Death is not the worst of fates. The outer edges are darkened, perhaps indicating the present, and then the warm yellow to the right, which could suggest an inner warm and light. The tree seems to divide the two conditions, war and peace. Yet all are part of the same object, the tree.
When the television art critic Sister Wendy visited the Kimbell, she zeroed in on a painting of trees by Casper David Fredrich and related it to romantic poetry and music, saying too often she doesn’t find the same affection for romantic painting.
Fredrich was deeply religious and used natural images to represent religious themes. Sister Wendy describes it as representing two distinct worlds. There are tall young trees, middle-aged trees and dead trees. The symbolism she says is obvious. The world where things don’t last and the world where things do last.
Alas, we are in the world where things don’t last, and some of those things apply to the Kimbell.
“For me the Kimbell is perhaps the perfect museum,” Sister Wendy says. “One of its advantages is that it is small. Where other museums count their collections in tens or even hundreds of thousands, the Kimbell houses just over three hundred works. Moreover,” she says, “it will never expand.”
Never say never.