Obsessed by baby trees

Herdsmaid, 1908, Anders Zorn, courtesy Zornsamlingarna

There were three titans of fin de siècle realism: the Spaniard Joaquín Sorolla, American ex-pat John Singer Sargent, and Swedish Anders Zorn. They were almost exact contemporaries and all three mined the same material—figure and landscape, heavily larded with the society portraits that paid the bills. Each was known for the assurance of his brushwork and for capturing light with a minimum of fuss. With our bias toward Anglo-American culture, we know Sargent best, but all were deservedly famous in their day. Do I have a favorite among them? Whichever one I’m looking at, at the moment.

Baby Spruce and Pine, 6X8, oil on canvasboard, private collection.

Ever since I first saw Herdsmaid, above, I have been obsessed. Zorn’s handling of the lass is wonderful, but it’s the baby pine that haunts me. It’s a dead ringer for the young Eastern White Pine that’s Maine’s state tree and blankets so much of the Adirondacks and northern New England. Zorn manages to convey the soft bristles with a single brushstroke that connects both light and dark. I’ve never even come close.

Jack Pine, 8x10, oil on canvasboard, private collection.

Most painters are entranced by mature evergreens. Their angular, buffeted forms stand tall and dark against the horizon, making them a naturally-pleasing compositional form. Perversely, I love their fluffy babies. They cluster in little nurseries at their parents’ feet, fifty or so at a time. They cast no shadows, so ephemeral is their foliage. The teenagers are gawky, with long slender stems and curious tufts of needles. Zorn caught that perfectly.

The pine nursery (Madawaska Pond), 12X16, oil on canvasboard, available.

I tried again on Wednesday. Sandra Hildreth took me for a long ride into the forest—north from Paul Smiths and then eight miles down a logging track. From there we shouldered our backpacks and hiked a scant eighth of a mile to a point overlooking Madawaska Pond. The money shot (of course) was a view of Buck Mountain in the distance. But what interested me most was the tree nursery in the foreground.

I tried to include both, and it was an error. The tree nursery on the left had no shadows, no distinct colors, and no interstices between the crowded trees, so it melted into nothingness against the big picture. It can’t stand up against the contrast of the mature pines that shelter it. No, it’s not a failure as a painting, but it didn’t meet my goal. I’d like to go back. Alas, there isn’t time.

St. Gabriel's Church, 12X16, oil on canvasboard.

There’s another tree nursery in Paul Smiths that I’ve painted before. It sits by a ramshackle old church called St. Gabriel’s. The church is in no better shape than last time I visited, but someone has wisely yanked the baby pines away from the foundation. Those in the nearby woods have grown taller than me. Sadly, they will now begin a fight to the death, for only some can survive. It’s the sad side of natural selection.

Sentinel pines, 11X14, oil on canvasboard, available.

There are always little pines along the roadside, where they’re regularly mowed down by road crews. Perhaps I’ll take my safety cones and paint some on my way to Saranac Lake this afternoon. Today is the day I jury the 14th annual Adirondack Plein Air Festival. If I give up any hope of being elegant for the reception tonight, I can sneak in a painting on my way to town. Really, which is more important?

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