Rembrandt’s The Three Trees (1643)

One of the many little-known methods used by artists to convey their underlying meaning is the metamorphosis of their own face, or part of it, into a landscape. Remember, on the poetic level, an image even if it appears to resemble a real landscape is almost always a view inside the artist’s mind. With the mind located in the brain behind the forehead, the artist’s hairline, if distinctive, can be used as a major landmark.

Rembrandt, for instance, is always hailed for his close attention to nature. Sixteen of his 26 landscape etchings are known to be based on actual sites. Yet even those unaware of EPPH do recognize that topographical accuracy was not Rembrandt's principal objective. In one etching the view of the land is known to be accurate but, also, that no farmhouse existed where he put it.1

I have already shown elsewhere how Rembrandt’s youthful hairline descends diagonally across both his forehead and Landscape with a Stone Bridge (1638). It can be seen at far left transformed into the wispy contour of the clouds. His eye, of course, is in the bridge where water, the source of life, runs through it.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Rembrandt, Landscape with a Stone Bridge (1638) Oil on panel. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

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One of his most famous landscape prints, The Three Trees (1643), goes a step further. Rembrandt's “face” is inverted, as though reflected in his mind, his hairline now on the other side; the diagonal is echoed in the streaks of rain. The trees grow in the same place as in the earlier landscape, above and out of his “eye”, though the bridge’s more similar arch-form has been replaced by a rise in the ground.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Rembrandt, The Three Trees (1643) Etching with drypoint and burin on paper.

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The trees, pregnant with meaning, symbolize nature’s growth, his mind’s fertility, the approximate texture and shape of a paintbrush and the three crucifixions at Golgotha. Good and bad are illusions of the material world; with the death of ego, Christ rises between the Good and Bad Thieves merging with them, as the trees do here, into the mind of god.2

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Rembrandt's The Three Trees
Right: Rembrandt, Self-portrait in a Gorget (1636), detail inverted

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Picasso’s hair when he was young also crossed his forehead in a similar fashion. Last month I noticed that he had placed his self-portrait with this distinctive feature inside a Cubist still-life at the Metropolitan Museum, New York, where it has lain unseen ever since.

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Picasso, Still-life with Bottle of Rum (1911) Oil on canvas. Metropolitan Museum, New York.

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Without the earlier example of Rembrandt’s landscape I might not have noticed Picasso’s hairline in the still-life here. He has a large and small eye for the two forms of visual perception, insight and out-sight, a large nostril on the left, a broad mouth and a prominent chin.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Picasso's Still-Life with Bottle of Rum (1911)
Right: Photograph of Picasso at the Bateau-Lavoir (c.1908-9) Picasso Museum, Paris

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Balthus, Picasso’s contemporary, did something similar when he merged the top of Poussin’s head and forehead from Poussin’s 1650 Self-portrait into his own masterpiece which also has remained unseen at the Metropolitan Museum. You can read about it at Balthus’ The Mountain (1937)

Notes:

1. Rembrandt’s Journey: Painter Draftsman Etcher (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts) 2004, pp. 188-9

2. In the esoteric tradition Christ and the two Thieves are all aspects of your own self. With the death of your ego material duality (eg. good and bad) is seen as the illusion it is. You are now God-like, resurrected and re-born.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 11 Feb 2013. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.