This Study of Trees is the only known oil on canvas painting by Friederich Salathé, one of the leading figures of Swiss Romantic movement. It depicts a theme which fascinated him, the wild and rocky forests of Italy and his native Switzerland, depicted with astonishing and unrelenting attention to detail.
The painting is apparently unfinished, and the working technique of the artist is visible throughout. The progression of Salathé’s creative process is clearly outlined: in the upper right, on the canvas which has been washed in with blue, the broadly suggested forms for branches and foliage are lightly rounded in, while in the lower left, the solid and heavy shapes of large stones are more strongly, but freely, drawn. From the lower right and extending up into the middle of the composition, the artist has, with a steady and meticulous hand, inked in rocks, a trunk of a tree, and foliage. Hatching is used to add form and weight, and Salathé has also indicated the branches and leaves that would overlap the main vertical of the tree. Finally, but no less thought out, the paint layer has been applied.
While unrealized compositions are not all that rare among artists of this period, they are somewhat common in Salathé’s oeuvre. Rather than simple sketches or quick paintings done en plein air that served their purpose at the moment or were intended for later reference, such exercises were a finished product for Salathé, who was fascinated by the juxtaposition of the done, and the undone. Many of his watercolors and drawings show two and sometimes three levels of finish, often rather jarring and abrupt to the viewer. He was occupied with this theme even during his early years: examples of drawings and watercolors exist from his sojourn in Italy (1815-21), as wekk as from his later career. The present canvas is closest in conception and tone to an oil study on paper of Trees (private collection, Zurich) and two (finished) pencil, ink and wash drawings by Salathé of Trees and a Rocky path in Italy and a Stream in a Forest, both of 1848 (Basel, Kupferstichkabinett, Inv. 1927.246 and 1875.11, see Friederich Salathé: Ein Zeichner der Romantik, exhibition catalogue, Basel 1988, cat. nos. 227, 253, and 254, illus, figs. 90, 96 and 97 respectively).
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