The landscape genre is often overlooked and unappreciated by the average art connoisseur, unconsciously disregarded as pretty to look at but lacking the complexity and mystery that lies in portraiture, genre scenes, or history painting. Viewers tend look at landscapes with a less critical or incurious eye, perhaps finding them simpler to discern and easily understood. But this is far from the truth. Landscape, like any other genre, possesses the capacity for deep, subtle, and multi-faceted meaning. It has a lineage that may be referenced or subverted. Symbolic elements may be infused throughout, or a composition may function as a complete allegory. It may express the sentiment of the artist or an entire community toward a certain place or time. A landscape could depict a real place, with changes made to convey a specific meaning, or it may be the imagined rendering of a mythological setting or entirely fictitious locale. Rembrandt’s oeuvre of landscapes, which is extensive and diverse, may be explored as a microcosm of the symbolic potential of landscapes; more specifically, the artist’s Three Trees serves as a paradigmatic example of layered meaning and emotional evocation through the medium of landscape. It fulfills it symbolic potential in five predominant ways: its function as an expression of generality, a site of fantasy, a manifestation of nationalistic sentiment, a religious metaphor, and an exploration of the relationship between man and nature.
Three Trees is undoubtedly Rembrandt’s largest and most famous landscape etching, but also his most complex. The title, like those of his other works, is deceptively simple; the literal three trees comprise a large and significant portion of the composition, but both the style and additional iconography in the entirety of the work complicate Rembrandt’s use of the genre and the work’s meaning. Three Trees, more than all of his other works, truly manifests itself as an embodiment of Dutch landscape, the epitome of Rembrandt’s relationship with his natural world. It’s the very quintessence of symbolic landscape, a niche of the genre that concentrates its meaning on the imaginary and allegorical qualities of nature rather than naturalism. Susan Donahue Kuretsky similarly describes the etching as a symbolic reflection in “Worldly Creation in Rembrandt’s ‘Landscape with Three Trees.’” She writes:
“The absence of specific, identifiable landmarks, even along the generalized city profile at the left, suggests that, rather than representing a particular spot, Rembrandt has evoked the characteristic features of the Dutch environment in a generic sense: the distinctive proximity of city and countryside, the flat expanses of tilled fields with their windmills, cattle and herdsmen, the changeable, cloud-filled sky, as well as the water ground and the rising mass of a dike that serves as platform for the three trees themselves generic trees representing no particular species.”
In this manner, Three Trees functions similarly to that of Canaletto's The Grand Canal, expressing the generality of a space without the details of realism to make that rendering entirely objective.
Three Trees is particularly distinctive among Rembrandt’s landscape oeuvre, because unlike works such as The Windmill and Goldweigher’s Field, there is no concrete evidence to suggest the landscape rendered in Three Trees actually exists (though, ironically, it still serves to function as an embodiment of the Dutch landscape as a generality). The drypoint detailing in the execution of the sky is evocative of that of the Dutch atmosphere, the vegetation indicative of the Dutch countryside; yet it seems likely that Three Trees is not actually the product of observation and drawing en plein air, but rather the result of Rembrandt’s spontaneity and imaginative approach to etching as a medium. Here, Rembrandt captures the true energy and character of the Dutch climate and topography. His rendering of the clouds is dynamic and animated, the shading indicating the multi-directionality of the implied wind. Rain pours down in thick sheets in the left foreground and background, a staple of the Dutch climate. The heavily contrasted sky opens like a curtain, streaming stippled light onto the trees. Kuretsky describes the scene as a “drama without a narrative,” where nature (specifically nature as it pertains to the Dutch landscape) acts as the work’s protagonist. Vernet's Summer Evening and Carol Rottman's Island of Delos similarly capture the landscape as a medium of fiction and fantasy.
The symbolism Rembrandt utilizes is more complex than simply a one-to-one allegory, however; Three Trees also contains both religious and historical allusions that would have been readily recognized by a Dutch audience at the time. The etching’s unusually large size, intentionally rendered so as to draw attention to the deeper intrinsic meaning behind its initial simplistic appearance, would have encouraged viewers to draw multiple, layered conclusions about the work’s symbolism. The opening in the sky mentioned previously, for example, rendered with dramatic contrasts and heavy chiaroscuro, would likely have been understood to indicate a divine presence. Trees themselves are inherently rich in iconographic meaning, especially pertaining to theology. The inevitable artistic associations with trees include rebirth, regeneration, and the cyclical nature of life and creation, thematic elements crucial to the canonical practice of Christianity and the life of Christ. The number three possesses evident correlations with the holy Trinity (God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit), and its frequent utilization in art and architecture at the time made it highly recognizable as an artistic motif. The triad of trees also recalls the three wooden crosses at the crucifixion, where Christ hung between two thieves. The striking ways in which the trees are emphasized, sharply delineated by Rembrandt’s use of shading, further serve to accentuate the thematic and compositional dominance the trees, and, by extension, its corresponding theological connotations.
Besides the subject matter, artistic elements in Three Trees, such as the use of juxtaposition and dichotomy, contribute to a symbolic comparison with Dutch national identity and Netherlandish history. In fact, the etching’s size contributes to its association with history painting, an artistic genre in which landscape usually serves as mere background. Rembrandt’s understanding of the contemporary political landscape, fraught with international discord and unease regarding Dutch independence, is directly reflected in the literal landscape of Three Trees. “Patriotic appreciation of . . . views of the Dutch country-side was based precisely upon pride in the landscape as a national self-creation,” Kuretsky writes, “topographically as well as politically.” However, the use of trees as the predominant compositional subject further complicates Rembrandt’s symbolic imagery; while the stormy weather may indicate disorder, the deeply rooted trees represent fortitude in light of adversity and drastic change, suggesting that the Netherlands may, in parallel, remain strong. The Republic of United Netherlands’ motto, “Unity Makes Small Things Grow,” exemplifies this very concept; the storm does not overpower the potency of the three trees, and the threats to Dutch independence would not overpower the Dutch people. Similarly, John Constable is expressing his sentiments towards industrialization and revolution, contemporaneous events plaguing his relationship with nature, in his many depictions of an ever-deteriorating Dedham Vale.
Rembrandt’s landscapes often functioned as general snapshots to express ideas regarding the Dutch countryside and daily pastoral life. They capture an innate sense of the Dutch character, particularly what it meant to Rembrandt. However, his Three Trees most extensively conveys the symbolic potential of landscape as a genre. Three Trees embodies how landscapes can manifest as sites of fantasy, how reality can be specifically manipulated in order to implicate viewers, how the duality of human and nature can produce meaning (see Details section of the website), and how a landscape can embody and reflect a nation or culture’s ideals, values, and history as well as ethnography. Three Trees undoubtedly influenced, if only implicitly, the long legacy of landscape artists to come. Its transformation of nature and landscape into a portrait, an inherently subjective and symbolic depiction of idea and place, made an indelible impression on the genre as a whole.