Friday, December 5, 2014

Chenguang Zhu's Blog 2: Trees in Pre-Raphaelite Paintings

Trees in Pre-Raphaelite Paintings

Pre-Raphaelite artists had keen interest in the natural world and strived for the realistic depiction of natural elements through careful study and plein air painting. Many of their landscape paintings have highly realistic depictions of trees. Such faithful portrayal can also be found in the background of their history paintings and genre paintings. In some of these paintings, trees are not only part of the landscape but also symbols for expressing artists’ views towards gender roles at their time.

For Victorians, trees were not merely a component of the natural environment. They attributed different symbolic meanings to trees based on tree’s botanical characteristics as well as mythological and literary traditions relating to trees. One of such cases is the “oak and ivy” metaphor, which suggests the conventional relationship between men and women in Victorian society—the wife should depend upon the husband for her living and alleviate husband’s affliction, just as the ivy grows with the support of the oak and holds up the oak when it is weak.[1] This gender norm implies that women are controlled by their husband and have little freedom, since they need the support from their husband and had the obligation to assist their husband by playing their domestic role as a mother and wife. Although Pre-Raphaelite artists did not portray oak and ivy to present such gender norm, some of their paintings used women and trees to express the idea that women are confined and weak compared with men. In The Knight Errant (Figure.1), Millais depicts a woman who is chained to a tree and waiting for a knight to rescue her. Since this painting only shows the trunk of the tree to which the woman is tied, it is hard to know if it is an oak tree and whether it can be seen as a symbol of man or not. Nevertheless, women’s weakness and dependence upon men can still be demonstrated by the scene in which the armed knight unchains a woman who has nothing to defend herself. 

Confined women were also portrayed by other Pre-Raphaelite artists, such as Evelyn De Morgan who painted The Dryad (Figure.2) and Clytie (Figure.3). In The Dryad, part of the body of the wood nymph Dryad is swallowed by the tree behind her. According to the analysis of Elise Lawton Smith, in classical mythology, the life of Dryad depends upon the life of the tree to which she is attached.[2] Although Smith’s analysis of this painting focuses on the symbol of resurrection, this painting can also be seen as a demonstration of women’s lack of independence and power, since Dryad’s lifespan is determined by the tree instead of herself. Clytie shows the nymph Clytie, who was confined in a bunch of sunflowers because of her passionate love to Apollo.[3] Sunflower in this painting is a clear indication of Apollo—a male god.[4] Therefore, again, Clytis suggests a powerless woman confined by the power of a man.

However, trees are not always the symbol of male dominance over the female. Some Pre-Raphaelite artists portray trees as the threat to the life of men. In Edward Burne-Jones’ The Tree of Forgiveness (Figure.4), the Thracian queen Phyllis who has attached to an almond tree confined Demophoön, the man who abandoned her, by embracing him. In this painting, the man’s freedom is controlled by a woman. Such women’s fatal control over men via trees is best described in the medieval story of Merlin and Vivien. Merlin, the powerful warlock of King Arthur, was trapped by the witch Vivien and locked in a rock to his death.[5] Burne-Jones’s The Beguiling of Merlin (Figure.5) shows the scene of Vivien reading the spells on a book to confine Merlin, but Burne-Jones changes the rock in the story into a tree in the painting. In contrast to Millais’s The Knight Errant, The Beguiling of Merlin depicts a femme fatale possessing weapon (the magical book) for controlling a man. Therefore, Pre-Raphaelite artists used trees to show the gender norms of Victorian era, but what they showed was not a one-direction dominance of the male over the female. In some cases, trees represent men’s dominant power to confine women, while in some other paintings, trees can also serve as a female agency to threat the power of men.

Figure.1. John Everett Millais, The Knight Errant, 1829-1896.Oil on canvas. 184.1 × 135.3 cm. Tate Britain.[6] Picture derived from:

Figure.2. Evelyn De Morgan, The Dryad, 1884. 128.6 × 67.4 cm. The De Morgan Foundation.[7] Picture derived from:

Figure.3. Evelyn De Morgan, Clytie, 1886-1887.Private Collection, Argentina.[8] Picture derived from:

Figure.4. Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Tree of Forgiveness, 1882. Lady Lever Art Gallery.[9] Picture derived from:

Figure.5. Edward Coley Burne-Jones, The Beguiling of Merlin, 1872-1877.  Lady Lever Art Gallery.[10] Picture derived from:

Elise Lawton Smith.Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body. Madison, NJ:
Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002.
Nead, Lynda.“The Magdalen in Modern Time: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-
Raphaelite Painting.Oxford Art Journal7, no. 1, Correspondences (1984): 26-37.
Malory,Thomas.Le Morted’Arthur.New York: The Modern Library, 1999.

[1]Lynda Nead, “The Magdalen in Modern Time: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting,”Oxford Art Journal7, no. 1, Correspondences (1984): 28.
[2] Elise Lawton Smith, Evelyn Pickering De Morgan and the Allegorical Body (Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2002), 84.
[3] Ibid., 86.
[4] Ibid.
[5]Thomas Malory, Le Morted’Arthur(New York: The Modern Library, 1999), 103.
[6]“The Knight Errant,” Tate, accessed Dec. 2, 2014,
[7]Smith, 85.
[8]Ibid, 86.
[9]Ibid, 85.
[10]“The Beguiling of Merlin,” National Museums Liverpool, accessed Dec. 2, 2014,

1 comment:

  1. I found your comparison really interested, and it got me thinking about the tree imagery found in John Everett Millais’ Autumn Leaves from 1856. While this painting doesn’t show fully grown trees as you have discussed, its use of parts of trees, the leaves, can perhaps be seen along the same lines. The young girls in the painting collect leaves to burn in their garden. While it has traditionally been interpreted as a reflection of the transience of life, as another year has come and gone with the leaves, I think that it could also be, as you described, a commentary on male dominance in Victorian society. In the burning of the leaves, which are representative of the tree and through your interpretation, male dominance, perhaps it can be observed that these young girls are rejecting this aspect of society. This idea becomes supported by the almost defiant, proud look on the girls’ faces. Although they perform their chores and duties, it is in a way that portrays them as in control of themselves and as destructive, powerful agents, contrasting to the images that you interpreted as subduing and controlling the female characters.