April 12, 2024

Six Trees that Inspire at Historic Artists' Homes and Studios

When thinking of painters and trees, Bob Ross may be the first to come to mind. However, painters were charmed by “happy little trees” for centuries before Ross.

Artists like Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, and those from the Hudson River School, captured the beauty of the country’s majestic landscapes. It is through their eyes that many came to see these unique places for the first time. These works captured imaginations and helped the national park movement take root by making people realize that these places were worth preserving for future generations.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation houses many incredible trees, some of which are under the purview of their Historic Artists’ Homes and Studios program, a coalition of 61 museums that were the homes and working studios of American artists. Visitors to these sites can stand where ideas were transformed into tangible and see how the light falls on the easel, as well as look at the view out of the window, and see how the landscape may have inspired the artist.

Here are six HAHS sites that have remarkable trees on-site. Plan a visit today to see the foliage that inspired these artists, and allow them to spark your own creativity.

Burchfield Homestead Society (Salem, Ohio)

Detail view of the blooming cherry blossoms at Burchfield Homestead.

photo by: Madeline Patton

Detail view of Cherry blossoms at Burchfield Homestead.

Charles E. Burchfield was a modernist painter known for his distinctive watercolors that depict the natural world. He lived in the humble frame house in Salem, now known as Burchfield Homestead, from the age of 5 to 28 (1898-1921). His painting “Cherry Blossom Snow,” was inspired by a tree across the alley from the Burchfield Homestead. While the tree from his youth was lost years ago, a new tree was planted in 2008 in memory of Sharon Medford, a volunteer who led the re-creation of the homestead’s garden according to Burchfield's journal descriptions.

Visitors in the spring will see the new cherry tree in a glory of pink flowers. If you visit on a windy day, the lawn will again be blanketed with a snow of dropped petals.

Florence Griswold Museum (Old Lyme, Connecticut)

Are you familiar with the tale of Connecticut’s Charter Oak? Legend has it that the state’s Royal Charter of 1662 was hidden within a venerable oak tree in Hartford to thwart its confiscation by the English governor-general. A terrible storm in 1857 fell that great tree. However, the acorns were collected and over the years, the progeny have been cultivated and planted in various locations across the state.

During the first two decades of the 20th century, Old Lyme, Connecticut was the setting for one of the largest art colonies in America. Vanguards in the Tonalist and Impressionist movements were drawn to Old Lyme by its natural beauty. Many visitors to Florence Griswold's boarding house painted outdoors, where American Impressionist Wilson Henry Irvine (1869-1936) noted “there’s a kind of hazy beauty in the air.”

View of a group of people gathered around an installation related to the Charter Oak at the Florence Griswold House.

photo by: Florence Griswold House

View of the replanted seedling of the Charter Oak at the Florence Griswold House.

Painting of a great tree with yellow branches spread out across the canvas.

photo by: Florence Griswold Museum

"The Charter Oak" by Frederic Church.

In 1976, as part of the local American Bicentennial festivities, a seedling from a Charter Oak acorn was planted at the Florence Griswold Museum. In 2002, an iconic painting of The Charter Oak by Frederic Church (1826-1900) was given to the museum. Today, visitors can see both, the fifty-foot high oak tree and Church's painting of the original tree.

Thomas Cole National Historic Site (Catskills, New York)

View of the Honey Locust Tree outside the Thomas Cole National Historic Site

photo by: Jennifer Greim

Exterior view of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site with a Honey Locust tree creating shade in the front.

When the United States was still a fledgling nation, Thomas Cole (1801-1848) created a new, uniquely American art style—landscape painting that gave birth to the Hudson River School art movement. Cole wrote that “Trees are like men, differing wildly in character… they exhibit striking peculiarities, and sometimes grand originality."

The 200-year-old honey locust that towers over his home is no exception, with its distinctive three-branched thorns. Planted at the entrance to the Main House, the honey locust appears in an 1868 painting of the site by artist Charles Herbert Moore (1840-1930). Today, visitors to the site can see both tree and Moore’s painting, which is part of the museum’s collection.

Painting of a great tree in front of the home of Thomas Cole.

photo by: Thomas Cole National Historic Site

Painting of Cedar Grove by Charles Herbert Moore.

Wharton Esherick Museum (Malvern, Pennsylvania)

Sepia toned photograph of a farmhouse with a massive cherry tree overarching the structure.

photo by: Wharton Esherick House

View of the Cherry Tree outside the Wharton Esherick Farmhouse.

Wharton Esherick (1887-1970) is considered one of the most important twentieth-century furniture designers. In 1913, Esherick and his wife, Letty, left their conventional Philadelphia upbringing behind to build a life close to nature. Nestled under the boughs of a massive cherry tree sat an 1839 farmhouse that the Eshericks chose to call home. The tree was so large that even together the couple could not fit their arms around its trunk.

When Esherick bought the farmhouse, he had not yet transitioned from painting to the woodwork and sculptural furniture for which he is celebrated today. Even so, he was drawn to this remarkable tree and chose the house because of it.

A black and white print of the Wharton Esherick Museum

photo by: Wharton Esherick Museum

Print of the Cherry Tree at the Wharton Esherick Farm.

In the years to come, Esherick would depict the cherry tree numerous times in paintings, prints and drawings, and–when the tree finally succumbed to age and Japanese beetles – he used its large branches for the walls of his iconic studio dining room, surrounding himself in its warm tones for decades to come.

Soldner Center for the Arts and Innovation (Aspen, Colorado)

Paul (1921-2011) and Ginny Soldner (d. 1995) purchased the Soldner property in Aspen in 1956. Paul was a pioneering ceramic artist and Ginny was a painter. They both had a passion for the natural world that inspired the structures they built and the manner in which they lived.

This passion can be reflected in a diminutive bonsai tree, now possibly 70 years old, that welcomes visitors to the quiet serenity of Paul and Ginny Soldner’s home and studio.

Paul rescued the tiny 12” fir tree from a spring-time washout high in the Rocky Mountains. He planted its shallow roots on the boulder he hand-dug from a nearby hillside and placed it on their patio as an anniversary present for Ginny.

Over the years, he carefully cultivated it as a bonsai. Guests are drawn to it immediately, in awe of its modest size yet powerful presence.

View of a 70 year old bonsai tree sitting on an rock formation with its roots into the rock at the Soldner Center.

photo by: Lonnie Buerge

Bonsai Tree outside of the Soldner Center.

Manitoga/The Russel Wright Design Center (Garrison, New York)

View of a tree with exposed roots over a felled log. The woods are in fall colors.

photo by: Rick Darke

A White Pine and Yellow Birch on the White Pine Path at Manitoga.

Manitoga is the former home and 75-acre woodland garden of American industrial designer Russel Wright (1904-1976), envisioned with his wife Mary Einstein Wright (1904-1952) for their future family.

Once a ravaged industrial site, the Wrights transformed the scarred land to a place of extraordinary beauty. Inspired by the area’s ancestral residents, the Wappinger people, Wright called the emerging vision for the land “Manitoga” or "Place of Great Spirit."

Wright studied the fluid structure and connecting patterns of the forest; he waited for the place to reveal itself to him. During an early exploration of the property, Wright encountered a centuries-old magnificent White Pine. This colossal tree had weathered decades of forest harvesting, only to be felled by a hurricane in 1976.

Instead of removing the tree, Wright embraced the great White Pine’s cruel fate and re-designed the path to guide visitors alongside the fallen tree to its uprooted base. As years passed, the massive base nursed the roots of a young Yellow Birch that had lodged there – roots embracing roots. This ancient tree is why it is called the White Pine Path.

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Haley Somolinos Headshot

Haley Somolinos is the manager of email marketing at the National Trust. She has a passion for places and the stories that they hold.

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