Trees at Night: Stunning Rorschach Silhouettes from the 1920s
“Aside from the appearance of a tree by day or night, is it not kin of the human family with its roots in the earth and its arms stretching toward the sky as if to seek and to know the great mystery?”
By Maria Popova
Walt Whitman considered trees the wisest of teachers. Hermann Hesse found in them sweet consolation for our mortality. Wangari Maathai turned to them as a form of resistance and empowerment that earned her the Nobel Peace Prize. “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way,” William Blake wrote in his most beautiful letter. “As a man is, so he sees.”
A century after Blake, the artist, writer, and activist Arthur Henry “Art” Young (January 14, 1866–December 29, 1943) originated a sumptuous new way of seeing life, looking at trees.
In his forties, Young had risen to prominence with his political cartoons, criticizing capitalism and war, railing against racism, and advocating for women’s suffrage and the abolition of child labor. During World War I, they had rendered him prosecuted on a charge of conspiracy to obstruct recruiting. With some of Thoreau coursing through his veins, Young made his art both an instrument of civil disobedience and a lens for contemplating nature’s transcendent beauty.
In his fifties, Young’s imagination fell upon a subject both wholly natural and wholly original — the expressive humanlike shapes, states, and emotions emanating from the silhouettes of trees at night. He began rendering what he half-saw and half-imagined in pen and ink — haunting black-and-white drawings full of feeling, straddling the playful and the poignant. These visual poems, replete with the strangeness and splendor of nature and human nature, become the kind of Rorschach test one intuitively performs while looking at the sky, but drawn from the canopy rather than the clouds. While the sensibility is faintly reminiscent of Arthur Rackham’s unforgettable trees, the concept is entirely Young’s own — no artist had done anything like this before.
First published as a series in the Saturday Evening Post, Young’s tree silhouettes were soon picked up by mainstream magazines like Collier’s and LIFE. They drew impassioned letters from readers — some sharing poems inspired by his art, some enclosing tree photographs they hoped Young would draw, some simply thanking him for these uncommon portals into an unseen world of beauty and emotion.
In 1924, Young assembled the best of his arborescent silhouettes in the slim, lovely out-of-print treasure Trees at Night (public library). Upon the book’s publication, Brooklyn’s Daily Eagle exulted that it “places Art Young in a class by himself” and Baltimore’s Evening Sun lauded him as “one of the few real native talents that this country has produced in art.”
Printed on the opening page is an excerpt from an early-autumn entry in Young’s diary:
In common with most people of artistic perception, I like trees. While looking out of my window toward the wooded hills one summer night, a caravan of camels seemed to be humping along the sky. They were trees of course but enough like camels to key my imagination up to discover other pictures in the formation of foliage. The rest of the summer nights I enjoyed hunting for tree pictures against the light of the sky or thrown into relief by the glare of automobiles, and drawing them next day. It seemed to me that this silhouette handling of trees at night had never before been done by any artist. I felt that I had discovered something.
After the caravan, I saw “a woman and a fan” and other subjects followed. Any night I could walk or ride along the road and see interesting silhouettes made by tree forms, many of them so clearly defined as to need no improvement on my part. But aside from the appearance of a tree by day or night, is it not kin of the human family with its roots in the earth and its arms stretching toward the sky as if to seek and to know the great mystery?
In his memoir, Young — a high school dropout, who put his own son through college with his art — recounts his surprise when “respectable magazines” first began seeking out his comics. But the greatest surprise came the day he heard from the managing editor of the Saturday Evening Post — a publication the radical artist saw as a “conservative world-popular weekly,” in which his ideas would be particularly unwelcome. And yet they wanted him to do a series. Skeptical and mischievous, he saw it as a chance to Trojan-horse progressive values into this bastion of conservatism and capitalism. He writes:
I knew, of course, that my kind of propaganda would not appeal to the makers of this magazine with its editorial devotion to Big Business and Big Profits. But I thought of something else which might find favor there. For a long time I had contemplated a series of pictures to be called Trees at Night. Often I had made sketches toward this end, after walks under the stars on the roads near my place in Connecticut.
The first sheaf of these pictures — eleven of them, as I remember it — were sent for [the editor-in-chief’s] approval, and I got a prompt acceptance. After a few were published, I was asked to draw additional ones. For more than a year the series ran, usually every other week.
My conception of trees showed them as fantastic, grotesque, humanized, or animalized, with trunks, limbs, and foliage tossed in gayety or inert and solemn against the night sky. They were not propaganda as that term is generally understood, but I have heard people who liked them say they read sermons in them all. For this series I received $75 each. I have a large scrap-book filled with complimentary letters, poems, and tree-ideas evoked by these drawings.
One of the best of my tree drawings occupied a double page in Life. I have always had a hopeful outlook — even when everything seemed lost. Nevertheless, as an onlooker I had seen so much in human life that revealed the pathos of hope, that I had to put the theme into a picture. Among other tragic hopes I had seen was an old man and his wife living in poverty, but holding onto stock in one of those kid-’em-along silver mines that they thought might some day bring them joy. In my picture this forlorn old man is out on a bleak hill with his hope symbolized as a dead tree. With a sprinkling pail he waters its roots. The caption, as published in Life, was: “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.”
Complement Young’s Trees at Night with something he never lived to know but would have cherished knowing — the fascinating science of what trees feel and how they communicate — then revisit The Night Life of Trees, drawn from Indian folklore, and philosopher Martin Buber on what trees teach us about being human.
A portion of the proceeds from these art prints supports the beautiful and necessary work of the Arbor Day Foundation.
Published August 6, 2019