September 24, 2021

The Blasted Tree: A Visual Metaphor


On a recent walk through the woods I saw that a large tree had two of its limbs shattered, possibly by a lightning strike. The breaks looked violent, with jagged edges, and an aggressive split. It's startling to see this damage amidst calm, leafy trees. And yet, it's a part of nature's cycle of destruction, decay, and regrowth. I wrote about this pattern here. Seeing this tree made me think of all the images of blasted trees in landscape paintings, and their meaning within those landscapes. 

Jacob van Ruysdael, Landscape with a Half-timbered House and a Blasted Tree, 1653

In her essay on Romantic landscape painting in Hyperallergic, Allison Meier writes:
What's important is that the tree is usually still living, leaves clinging to its battered branches. To the Romantics, it represented the cycle of nature, from death to life, all at once. 

Thomas Hearne, Blasted Tree Near a Lake, 1803

In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, (1818), Victor Frankenstein describes himself as a blasted tree:
But I am a blasted tree: the bolt has entered my soul, and I felt then that I should survive to exhibit what I shall soon cease to be – a miserable spectacle of wrecked humanity,  pitiable to others, and intolerable to myself. 

William Blake, Blasted Trees and Flattened Crops, 1821

The idea of the blasted tree has great emotional weight. In Blake's wood engraving the tree is so much like a storm-tossed human figure, bent by the wind, with a few leaves clinging to its outstretched arms. 

Frederic Church, Storm in the Mountains, 1847

A solitary tree, its trunk split and broken, stands high above a turbulent landscape. It is as though Church is pointing to pride and resilience in the face of turmoil. 

Jasper Cropsey, Blasted Tree, 1850

Like in the Church painting, Cropsey situates his damaged tree high up on a precipice, overlooking a dark, foreboding landscape. This painting feels despondent to me, the blasted tree crushed, the light in the sky nearly obliterated. 

Lawren Harris, North Shore, Lake Superior, 1926 

In this painting––the only one I could find on this theme from the 20th century––Harris presents a more optimistic vision of a solitary damaged tree. The tall, central tree is bathed in light; its curving forms reach skyward, an evocation of positive striving. In the history of the arts, our relationship with nature has provided many metaphors, including this one of the blasted tree. Simon Schama wrote a brilliant book, Landscape and Memory, on the various myths and strong cultural connections that we have to the different landscapes surrounding us. In his introduction he wrote:
...the various ecosystems that sustain life on the planet proceed independently of human agency...But it is also true that it is difficult to think of a single such natural system that has not, for better or worse, been substantially modified by human culture...And it is this irreversibly modified world, from the polar caps to the equatorial forests, that is all the nature we have.


  1. AS a former landscape curator for the Registry of Historic Places in the Nudson Valley, I am very interested in the romantic landscape. A genre promoted by landscape designers and gardeners in that area, mimicking the English in the 19th c. Often in England that landscape was included a hermits cabin, complete with installed hermit which the residents and guests would peer at through binoculars. Always those broken weathered trees completed the "romantic" scene. I cared for the trees that were labeled as Witness Trees in that they witnessed history.

  2. Thank you for reviving your blog, Studio and Garden, I enjoy each meditation. Love this survey of the blasted tree in art, Romantic paintings. The last tree by Lawren Harris looks like a modern sculpture...still reaching for the light.

  3. Another realm of such things is bonsai.
    Beauty in imperfection and age.
    Thanks for launching another good line of thought.