For those of us with botanical leanings, there is something slightly less satisfying about looking at a famous painting of a plant without knowing the exact species rendered. It’s equivalent to looking at a photograph of a captivating face from some faraway land and never knowing the person’s name or if they even agreed to be captured in the first place. The knowing of a species may seem redundant to some, especially those outside of science, but what it does is allow for further consideration of a plant: where it came from, whether it is native or transposed, what details in its appearance set it apart from its relatives, who are those relatives and how common is it. In this way we get to appreciate and connect more deeply with the subject, its own unique story and as a corollary, the artwork.
The Bodmer Oak is a painting by Claude Monet completed in 1865. The name does not denote a particular species, but rather references the Swiss landscape painter Karl Bodmer who painted it first. The Metropolitan Museum of Art states ‘it was one of several imposing trees in the Fontainebleau Forest that had acquired a special appellation.’ The Fontainebleau forest is an area that includes sand plains, limestone plateaus, and tree-filled woodland, offering an extensive tableau of natural beauty 60km South East of Paris. It has been immortalised by a roll call of famous 19th Century artists – Camille Corot, Claude Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Cézanne, Seurat, Rousseau, Millet, Gustave Le Gray and Eugène Cuvelier – who produced works of art inspired by it.
There is no record of a species ever having been recorded for the Bodmer Oak. AND, no reportings of sightings of this particular tree in recent years. A strong possibility however is Quercus petraea or Sessile Oak. The Sessile Oak, an emblematic tree of the french forest, is common in this region and most significantly a number of ancient specimens have been recorded by the super Monumental Trees website as being present today. It stands to reason that Monet, and others before and after him, focused on the oldest and most impressive trees in the area – ergo the ‘special appellations’. No-one seems to know if this particular tree is still standing (the Office de Tourisme du Pays de Fontainebleau has sent a query to their forestry department but as yet there is no response) – it may well be long gone, but if only Monet had thought to add a few stalkless (ie ‘sessile’) acorns to proceedings we would be slightly more confident of our thinking.
Other trees from Fontainebleau..
Théodore Rousseau (1812–1867) The Large Oak Tree, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1839
Gustave Le Gray, Oak Tree and Rocks, Forest of Fontainebleau, 1849–52
Paul Cézanne, In the forest of Fontainebleau, 1879-1882
Paul Dougherty, Autumn Oaks, Forest of Fontainebleau 1898-1902