Saturday, 13 December 2014



My enthusiasm for the holiday season means that over the past few years I have already used up some of the familiar and well-known Canadian art that has to do with winter, Christmas or the holidays (with the exception of Clarence Gagnon’s Midnight Mass (1908).

(Clarence Gagnon's Midnight Mass (1908))

Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Canadian artists have been creating an abundance of lovely wintery scenes that can easily pass as the imagery for beautiful Christmas and Season’s Greetings cards, but they are appropriate all winter long and are not Christmas-specific. I have discussed many of these Canadian masterpieces in previous blogs such as In the Not-So-Bleak Midwinter: Winter Wonderland Art and Lovely Weather for a Sleigh Ride Together with Art. So as not to repeat myself, like a few of the other blogs this year I will not limit myself to focusing on Canadian art for this holiday blog.

Although creativity and artistry are abounding during the holiday season in the form of ornaments, decorating and design there are not many specifically ‘art historical’ topics that I can think of to write about. However Christmas has lots of deep historical roots, and there are lots of stories to be told. Most cultures around the world have always had some sort of celebration in mid-to-late December as this coincides with the Winter Solstice.

I have decided to select one festive custom to talk about and illustrate with great works of art. I chose the history of the Christmas tree. Although this is a non-Canadian art themed topic, I did choose it because I was thinking of important themes in Canadian art. Based on the country’s landscape, trees have always been an important theme in Canadian art, especially the ‘lone’ tree, and very often an evergreen. That sounds an awful lot like a Christmas tree.

(A handful of Canadian masterpieces featuring the lone pine or evergreens in winter)

(Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes (Canadian, 1859-1912) The Christmas Tree

The above painting by Canadian artist Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes is at least one example of a Canadian painting featuring the Christmas tree, though she did move to and paint in England (where the subject matter was depicted more regularly at the time)

Evergreens have had a special meaning in winter since pre-Christian times in cultures all over the globe. During the ‘festive’ season people decorated their homes with evergreens. The Ancient Egyptians believed the Sun to be a God whom became sick in the darkness of winter, and they celebrated and decorated with evergreens at the Winter Solstice to signify that the Sun God could begin to recover. The Romans celebrated ‘Saturnalia’ during the Winter Solstice and also decorated with evergreens. Saturn was the God of Agriculture and the time of year signified that the agricultural season was just around the corner. Celtic Druids decorated with evergreens at this time because it was meant to symbolize everlasting life. In Scandinavia evergreens were special to the Sun God. As Christianity spread it is reputed that when St. Boniface converted Germanic pagans he replaced a worshipped oak tree with an evergreen tree because the triangular shape is reminiscent of the Holy Trinity and points to Heaven.

The pervasive use of evergreens during the festive season survived with new Christian customs. The idea of decorating a whole tree came a little later. Loose connotations to the Christmas tree are found in Georgia and Poland very early, but the closest connection to todays traditional Christmas tree took root in Northern Germany and Livonia (modern Estonia and Latvia) in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. In these regions Renaissance Guildhalls housed evergreen trees decorated with sweets to be enjoyed by Guild apprentices and children. Often the tree would be transferred to the town square on the final evening of festive celebrations. Records of this have survived for a certain Livonian guild, the Brotherhood of Blackheads, for 1441, 1442, 1510 and 1514; and for the town of Bremen in 1570.

In the Rhineland in the late 15th and 16th centuries devoted Christians would sometimes put evergreen trees in their homes, and they became a Protestant symbol at Christmas as opposed to the Catholic Christmas crib. There are records of evergreen trees being hung in St. George’s Church in town of Selestat (modern day Alsace) in 1521.

St. George's Church in Selestat, Alsace continuing the tradition of hanging trees in the church at Christmas)

Protestant upper-class families in Upper Rhineland towns began placing decorated evergreen trees in their homes after this. The move from guildhalls and churches into the home begins the development towards our contemporary Christmas tree practices. Trees in the home took longer to spread into rural areas but slowly over the course of the 18th century all over Germany it became more prevalent, in so that by the 19th century the Christmas tree was thought of as an embodiment of German culture (especially for Germans abroad).

(Franz Kruger, (German 1797-1857))

(Franz Skarbina (German, 1849-1910))

(Felix Ehrlich,(German, 1866-1931))

Also in the early 19th century all over Europe the nobility were adopting the practice of decorating an evergreen tree. The Christmas tree came to England via the Hanoverian merge between King George III and his German wife Charlotte. Queen Victoria had one yearly as a child, and made the tradition even more en vogue within the upper classes when she continued to have and promote them after marrying her German cousin Albert in 1841. Christmas trees began to be advertised in magazines often in the mid-19th century, and by 1920 it was not just the middle and upper classes that had Christmas trees but all classes.

(A 19th century German Christmas market selling trees (artist unknown))

(Franz Rumpler, (Austrian, 1848-1988))

The Christmas tree made a few isolated debuts in North America towards the end of the 18th century. For example, although Christmas trees did not turn up with regularity in Canada until the 2nd half of the 19th century, a German general and his baroness wife stationed in Quebec had a Christmas party featuring a decorated tree in 1781. Americans became thoroughly interested in Christmas trees after an 1850 illustration of Queen Victoria and her family around their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle was re-published in an American magazine. Within just 20 years of the publication it was commonplace to have a Christmas tree in American homes. The popularity for them was so great that numerous places around the country have laid claim to having the first Christmas tree in America.

(Coloured print of Queen Victoria and her family by the Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle)

(Eastman Johnson, (American, 1824-1906))

I will conclude this brief general history of the Christmas tree with more paintings that depict the Christmas tree in some capacity. I have attempted to select paintings from the late 19th and early 20th centuries to best illustrate similarities and differences between Christmas tree traditions up to a hundred years ago and our contemporary versions. I also tried when possible to select some works that are impressionistic, or somewhat impressionistic, in style to compliment the lovely Canadian impressionist paintings that are currently on exhibition and sale at Masters Gallery Calgary. The Impressionism in Canada exhibition and sale celebrates the launch of a new seminal publication on the subject called Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery. There will certainly be some lovely impressionistic winter wonderlands within the book, which is available for sale at Masters Gallery in Calgary. Incidentally, many of the below paintings are by artists from Northern Europe whom like the Canadians who learned of impressionism in France then took the method back to their own countries and embuded a certain 'northerness' in their impressionism.

Season's Greetings to all and enjoy these images of trees from the past.


(Viggo Johansen (Danish, 1851-1935))

(Viggo Johansen (Danish, 1851-1935))

(Carl Larsson, (Swedish, 1853-1919))

(Agathe Rostel, (German, 1868-1926))

(Fyodor Reshetnikov, (Soviet, 1906-1988))

(Sergei Dunchev, (Russian, 1916-2004))

(Boris Smirnov, (Russian, 1905-1993))

Henry Mosler, (American, 1841-1920))

(Margaret Thomas, (British/Australian, 1842-1929))

(Albert Chevallier Tayler, (British, 1862-1925))

(Marcel Rieder, (French, 1862-1942))

(Harry Bush, (British, 1883-1957))

Istvan Czok-Zuzu, (Hungarian, 1865-1961)

Jozsef-Rippl-Ronai, (Hungarian, 1861-1927))

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