The Three Trees is Rembrandt’s most famous landscape etching. E-F. Gersaint, the Parisian dealer who compiled the first survey of the artist’s graphic work, described it in 1751 as 'one of the finest and most finished that Rembrandt made…engraved with great taste and effect’ (quoted in: Eric Hinterding, Rembrandt Etchings from the Frits Lugt Collection, Thoth Publishers, Bussum, & Fondation Custodia, Paris, 2008, p. 391).
Landscape, as a subject in its own right, forms only a small part of Rembrandt’s printed oeuvre, created during a period of just over a decade from 1640-1652. His landscape etchings are, however, widely celebrated as some of his most exquisite in the medium. In these etchings Rembrandt largely eschewed the dramatic chiaroscuro seen in his paintings of the previous decade in favour of a more fluid, spontaneous execution; an approach to landscape also very much in evidence in his drawings at the time. The exception is The Three Trees, which, with its large scale and ambitious composition, is a tour- de- force of the effects of light and shade, almost painterly in its effect.
Although the view evokes the countryside around Amsterdam, Rembrandt’s interest was not topographical, and The Three Trees is a work of the imagination rather than a depiction of a real place. The characteristically domestic Dutch landscape, with its orderly patchwork of fields with grazing cattle, canals and windmills, and townscape filigree on the horizon, is interspersed with delightful incidental details of rural life: a couple fishing in the foreground, lovers concealed in a thicket, a heavily loaded horse cart on the crest of the hill, a man sketching. Absorbed in their everyday activities of work and play, all seem unaware of the meteorological drama unfolding in the skies above their heads – a sublime vista of storm torn clouds, sheets of rain and brilliant rays of sunlight. The copse of trees, after which the print derives its name, stand portentously on the hill.
Although the scene is a virtuoso depiction of a purely natural phenomenon, exquisitely rendered in all its atmosphere and detail, The Three Trees seems laden with an inexplicable metaphysical significance. Kenneth Clark describes this tension eloquently: 'Rembrandt was one of the most sensitive and accurate observers of fact who has ever lived.…In his landscape drawings of the 1650’s, every dot and scribble contributes to an effect of space and light…the white paper between three strokes of the pen seem full of air. Yet when he came to paint he felt that all these observations were not more than the raw material of art. For him, as for Rubens, landscape painting meant the creation of an imaginary world, vaster, more dramatic and fraught with associations than that which we can perceive for ourselves’. (K. Clark, Landscape into Art, John Murray, London, 1976, p. 60-61).
The Three Trees presents an eternal dialogue between earth and sky, the human and the elemental, the everyday and the sublime, evoking a sense of the diminutive scale of man, of awe in the face of creation, and of intimations of a wider, more expansive reality.
This superb early and unworn impression is selectively wiped for subtle tonal contrast, heightening the effect of the play of light. It is, however, also printed with exceptional clarity, revealing exquisite detail, most notably the lovers in the thicket, who are clearly discernable. Comparison to impressions in the collection of the British Museum reveal that this example is very similar to the exceptional Salting impression in its dramatic contrasts, and is superior to both the Cracherode and Slade impressions.