Painting of Gottfried Keller, 1855.
Painting of Gottfried Keller, 1855. e-manuscripta

Keller’s love for the oak tree

Gottfried Keller’s most ardent desire was to become an artist and paint scenes of nature. In the end he did just that, but mostly in words.

Noëmi Crain Merz

Noëmi Crain Merz

Noëmi Crain Merz is a historian at the University of Basel.

In October 1881 Gottfried Keller set off on a “modest little artistic tour” of Central Switzerland. An initial foray took him to the Lake of Uri, the mist-shrouded Urnersee. Ernst Stückelberg was painting the walls of the newly built Tell Chapel with frescoes from the origin story of the Swiss Confederation. The poet then travelled on to Lucerne and viewed a new painting by Arnold Böcklin, before “serendipity … [led him] to the quiet country house of Herr Robert Zünd”. Zünd was also a painter. Keller’s infatuation with the art of painting goes back a long way. Even as a young man he had plans to make it his profession, leaving his hometown of Zurich and setting out to try his luck in the artistic metropolis of Munich. Favourite subjects were landscapes, especially forests and, more often than not, his favourite tree – the majestic oak. If you can paint an entire forest “truly and faithfully”, Keller wrote later in the autobiographical novel Green Henry, this piece of art then permits “a kind of genuine recollection of the enjoyment of creation”. For years he tried to achieve this level of ability with drawings, watercolours and paintings, but the hoped-for breakthrough failed to materialise and his works sold poorly. After a few years he returned to Germany, spending time in Heidelberg and Berlin, before settling back in Zurich in 1855 and finally laying his paintbrush to one side.
Portrait of Gottfried Keller, 1890.
Portrait of Gottfried Keller, 1890. Swiss National Museum
Manuscript of Gottfried Keller’s «Waldlied».
Manuscript of Gottfried Keller’s «Waldlied». Zentralbibliothek Zürich
By then, technical advances and the tremendous economic upturn had transformed Keller’s home town. Alfred Escher, born in the same year as Keller, had made Zurich a railway hub and his rail network crisscrossed Switzerland. This made travel faster, more comfortable, and more efficient, but construction of the railways was not without collateral damage to Keller’s beloved forests. Railway sleepers were made of oak wood. Many thousands of trees that had grown over centuries were cleared and replaced with species that regrew more quickly. The forests around Zurich, to which the young Gottfried Keller had been so fond of retreating, no longer existed in their original form.
Switzerland’s nascent railway required a lot of resources, such as wood for the sleepers. Countless trees were felled to meet this need.
Switzerland’s nascent railway required a lot of resources, such as wood for the sleepers. Countless trees were felled to meet this need. ETH Library Zurich
Now, he stood before Robert Zünd’s easel. Overwhelmed, he was gazing at an unfinished painting: an oak forest rendered in perfect, pure detail as only nature can present it: “The artist’s fancy or imagination has nothing to invent here. But without his fancy and imagination, these pearls, which no one else would have seen, would not have been found.” The picture showed the second, large version of the Eichenwald that Zünd had painted back in 1859. When the artist brought out his other studies of nature, Keller’s first instinct was to have them all framed straight away. They reminded him of poems – the art form in which he had immortalised the oak: “Arm in Arm und Kron' an Krone steht der Eichenwald verschlungen, heut hat er bei guter Laune mir sein altes Lied gesungen”, he wrote in 1845 in his first Waldlied, a poem which has become a cultural treasure not only of German-speaking Switzerland, but within the entire corpus of German-language poetry. The oak forest as a mirror of an ideal society, whose members stand in embrace, head to head, harmoniously.
Keller was captivated by Robert Zünd’s «Eichenwald».
Keller was captivated by Robert Zünd’s «Eichenwald». Kunstmuseum Luzern
For centuries, Switzerland was thick with oak forests. They were not just used, but often overused, by humans – as a source of wood, and also as grazing for livestock, especially pigs, whose preferred feed was acorns. But nothing changed this forested landscape as rapidly and radically as the momentum of the fledgling federation’s industrialised economy. In the final short story from his cycle The People of Seldwyla, Keller describes in a humorous way how forests are being destroyed by people’s rapacity and greed for money. Everything is turned into money; only the noble, ancient oak is still standing at the end, this tree that “represents a monument such as no prince on earth and no people, with all their treasures, could have raised or even moved”. But it too would fall victim to capitalism. Keller lived to see Switzerland pass a federal law on forests and train the first foresters to protect the nation’s woodlands, at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic. But even during his lifetime the “ideal real landscape” or “real ideal landscape” that he saw in Zünd’s painting was increasingly becoming an ideal, having little in common with the reality of the Swiss landscape.
The school of forestry at the Polytechnic, 1866.
The school of forestry at the Polytechnic, 1866. Eidgenössische Forschungsanstalt WSL

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