The Tree Man

After Hieronymus Bosch

(circa 1450 - 's-Hertogenbosch - 1516)
Etching on thin laid paper Bordeline Diameter 20.8 cm (8.2 in.) Circa 1600

This unusual etching is based on a drawing by Hieronymous Bosch in the Albertina in Vienna. The central figure, a monstrous 'Tree Man', is derived from the “Hell” wing of one of Bosch’s most important paintings, The Garden of Earthly Delights, a triptych in the Prado, Madrid probably done around 1500. Both the drawing and the print similarly depict the central figure with gnarled tree trunk legs, boats for feet, and an egg shaped torso housing a pub. He looks back over his shoulder towards the viewer from beneath a hat composed of a spike edged wheel topped with a jug out of which emerge a fishing pole and a ladder. The unknown printmaker, however, has changed the rectangular composition of the drawing into a circle and has added marveling onlookers to the right and in the foreground.

Lafond offers several possibile analyses of the symbolic content of this work. He suggests that in The Garden of Earthly Delights, the Tree Man represents Nero and satirizes the corruption of his reign. Nero was a charioteer, or in Latin, augira, and the tree sprouting from the Tree Man’s back is shaped like the constellation Augira. In this print, one of the onlookers in the foreground gestures towards the figure with a sextant, lending credence to this theory. Lafond also postulates that the work might parody the biblical story of Jonah and that the strange posture of the Tree Man references Michaelangelo’s crouched ignudi in the Sistine Chapel. The figure’s eggshell-like body is reinforced by wood staves in the same way that the Sistine ceiling had to be reinforced in 1504. Finally, Lafond suggests that the Tree Man could represent the artist’s self-portrait. Bosch lived in the town of ‘s-Hertogenbosch, bosch meaning woods or tree. A man combined with a tree could refer to Hieronymous Bosch himself.

This particular impression was recently exhibited in Beyond Bosch: The Afterlife of a Renaissance Master at Harvard’s University Research Gallery. Curator Danielle Carrabino explains that the late 16th century was the moment when prints were just starting to become a new artistic medium. She says, “prints allowed Bosch’s imagery—and artists imitating his imagery—to be disseminated to a much wider audience.” She even suggests that in this print, the image of the Tree Man, surrounded by gawking spectators, has become “a meta-commentary” on the idea of Bosch as a phenomenon.

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David Tunick, Inc.

"Works of art on paper dating from the 15th century to classic 20th century"

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