Art Nouveau

Gustav Klimt and His Love for Trees in Paintings

Zuzanna Stańska 9 October 2018 min Read

Gustav Klimt, the greatest master of Vienna Secession is known for his golden paintings full of fantastic creatures, rich ornaments and beautiful women (who are often naked). But Klimt had also another, less known side called the Waldschrat–someone who lives in the woods on his own. From 1901 to 1904 Klimt completed several paintings of different woods which sometimes are half-abstract, sometimes realistic, but always they are breathtaking.

gustav klimt trees paintings Gustav Klimt, Birch Forest, 1903, Oil on canvas, 42 1/4 x 42 1/4 inches, Paul G. Allen Family Collection
Gustav Klimt, Birch Forest, 1903, Oil on canvas, 42 1/4 x 42 1/4 inches, Paul G. Allen Family Collection

During Klimt’s summer retreat in Litzlberg on Lake Attersee, Klimt started his days at 6 o’clock making long strolls in the woods. The effects of these walks are amazing: the artist must have felt comfortable in the middle of nature. Here he chose to paint a calm autumnal scene rather than the mysterious, dark heart of the forest.

gustav klimt trees paintings Gustav Klimt Forest of Beech trees 1903
Gustav Klimt, Beech Forest I, 1903, Staatliche Kunstsammlung Dresden

The artist painted birch forests a couple of times. Young birches were a popular motif for painters as they symbolized the season of spring and the rapid growth of young people (symbolism which perfectly fitted the ideology of the Secessionists). Klimt himself was around 40 when he created these paintings–maybe it was a fruit of nostalgic remembrance of the artist’s youth?

Gustav Klimt tree paintings Gustav Klimt. Spruce Forest II, 1904, private collection
Gustav Klimt. Spruce Forest II, 1904, private collection

For his tree paintings Klimt often chose square canvas—a pure geometric shape that was also one of Vienna Secession’s dominant decorative motif. In the flowering branches each dab of paint indicates a single leaf, a blossoming flower, or a piece of fruit. The flat flickering field of color evokes both postimpressionist painting and Byzantine mosaics where the forest, or a single tree crown, is similar to a precious carpet. It is a perfect whole.Klimt continued to add the dabs to the Pear Tree even after giving it to Emilie Flöge, his muse and possibly a mistress, in 1903.

gustav klimt trees paintings Gustav Klimt, Pear Tree, 1903, Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College
Gustav Klimt, Pear Tree, 1903, Harvard Art Museums, © President and Fellows of Harvard College

What’s is also characteristic for Klimt’s tree scenes is that we never see the sky. It is only suggested through tiny gaps in the upper parts of the paintings.

gustav klimt trees paintings Gustav Klimt, Rosebushes under the Trees, circa 1905, Musée d'Orsay, Paris, © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d'Orsay) / Gérard Blot
Gustav Klimt, Rosebushes under the Trees, circa 1905, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée d’Orsay) / Gérard Blot

This green horror vacui is a natural consequence of Klimt’s interest in ornament and rhythm. At this point of his career Klimt had steered away from his gold phase and was influenced by Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism, as many of his colleges at the time showed. But in Klimt’s pieces we don’t sense the stiffness of Signac and Seurat’s pieces–Klimt had added depth to the landscape within the painting by using vertical brush strokes.

gustav klimt trees paintings gustav klimt trees painting Gustav Klimt, The Park, 1910 or earlier, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Gustav Klimt, The Park, 1910 or earlier, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.

In this painting Klimt shows us a fragmentary view of the Schlosspark of Kammer on Lake Attersee. It is very abstract, only the tree trunks in the lower part of the painting give us the hint that the green mosaic above are the tree crowns. Above it we see only a sea of dabs.

When I look at all these beautiful paintings of trees, parks, woods I ask myself one question – was Klimt a treehugger?

Find out more:

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