THE TREE MAN
The life and work of Théophile de Bock has been the subject of little research. In 1991, during the 100th year anniversary of the Haagse Kunstkring – an institute which De Bock co-founded and of which he was the first president – a booklet containing a biography appeared 1. A brief introduction to his life and work is also given in the standard work on the The Hague School by Jos de Gruyter 2. Furthermore, some publications appeared during his lifetime and include a long piece in Elsevier’s Geïllustreerd Maandschrift 3. For details about the life of De Bock, I refer to those articles, limiting myself to information relating to his photography.
Although from an early age De Bock showed a particular interest in drawing and painting, he started a job as a clerk at the Dutch railway company in The Hague. This position was to be of short duration: he was dismissed two years later for drawing too much during work. From then on he never looked for another regular appointment and focused entirely on art. He took painting lessons from J.W. van Borselen and studied photography. This remarkable interest in photography, which was certainly not a usual practice for painters in those days, may have been thanks to the photographer Maurits Verveer, a close friend of De Bock and a fellow member of the Pulchri Studio in The Hague. The photographs which were discovered and shown here can be dated to around 1875, about the same time as when his major development as a painter occurred. It appears that both disciplines had a crucial influence on each other.
Like many other painters of the The Hague School, De Bock was definitely a landscape painter. He specialized in forest landscapes, which brought him the somewhat derogatory nickname ‘the beech painter’. This was perhaps an exaggeration ─ it is however striking how little De Bock varied in his subject matter during his thirty-year painting career. His work is generally of a static nature with a preference for trees (figure 1). Figures or animals in his work were often painted by artist friends of his, most importantly Willem Maris, with whom he lived together for some time in the seventies. Maris is credited with having added cows to the paintings of De Bock 4.
Members of the The Hague School were proud to paint from nature and only some of them are known to have taken photos 5. Nothing from the estate of De Bock points to his photographic activities. Probably, like many other painters, he kept it hidden. With the recent finding of the photos presented here, it has however become evident that he used them as visual models for his paintings. For example, from a comparison of one of his photos and a painting by him (figure 2), it is immediately obvious that the latter was created in the image of the photograph.
In addition, his paintings from the eighteen seventies are often ‘framed’ in a typical photographic manner with unexpected cut-offs and minor motifs such as a mound of sand (fig. 3). The limited range of subject-matter featuring in his paintings may possibly be connected to the long exposure time needed for photos. It was not possible to photograph moving subjects and he therefore could not use photo-models for figures or animals. This could explain why he avoided these subjects. Van Gogh criticized him for this omission in his painting abilities. In a letter to his brother he writes 6:
If he [De Bock] could and wanted to concentrate, he would certainly be a better artist than he is. I told him straight out, ‘De Bock, if you and I were to concentrate on figure drawing for a year, we would both end up quite differently from what we are now, but if we do not apply ourselves and simply carry on without learning anything new, then we won’t even remain as we are, but we will lose ground.’
Taking the photographs of De Bock only as studies for his paintings does not give him due credit as a photographer. His specialized subject choice may have made him a rather limited painter but he was nevertheless a very original photographer. In the Netherlands, the genre of landscape photography was completely unknown in the nineteenth century 7. Potential buyers were not interested and it was apparently not attractive to photographers. In comparison with international nineteenth-century landscape photographers (such as Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, Gustave Le Gray) De Bock’s photos are more intimate and small-scale. He was, literally, close to his favourite subject, the trees, and in particular his tree trunk photos are unique in nineteenth-century photography.
De Bock was only briefly active as a photographer. He quickly made a name as a painter and it is likely that, due to his success, he stopped taking photographic pictures. In a way, photography became superfluous because as a painter, there was no need for him to develop further. Despite this early success, he was quickly forgotten after his death in 1904, which comes as no surprise given his slightly academic style and unilateral romantic subject choice. The Bock however had a much less conservative side, as demonstrated by his original photographic oeuvre. Moreover, he was the driving force behind the creation of the Haagse Kunstkring in 1891. This institute was established in reaction to the more conservative Pulchri Studio, where an unknown artist such as Van Gogh could not be registered as a member. Thanks to De Bock, Van Gogh’s first exhibition in The Netherlands was organized by the Haagse Kunstkring. With this concise publication, I therefore hope to motivate a more elaborate future study of his position in nineteenth-century photography and to have provided a new insight into his development as a painter.
1 Elly Willems-Hendriks, Théophile de Bock, schilder van het Nederlandse landschap in 100 jaar Haagse Kunstkring 1891-1991, Stichting documentatie Théophile de Bock, Waddinxveen 1991
2 Jos de Gruyter, Théophile de Bock (1851-1904) in De Haagse School, deel 2, p. 90-91, Lemniscaat Rotterdam 1969
3 Louis de Haes, Théophile de Bock in Elsevier’s Geïllustreerd Maandschrift, p. 245-269, 1893
4 Anne Tabak in Het Haagse School boek, p. 340-347, Uitgeverij Waanders, Zwolle 2001
5 Hans Rooseboom, De schaduw van de fotograaf, p. 131, Primavera Pers, Leiden 2008
6 Vincent van Gogh in De brieven van Vincent van Gogh I, letter 174 (12-15 October 1881), p. 394-395, SDU Uitgeverij, ‘s-Gravenhage 1990
7 Frits Gierstberg in Nieuwe geschiedenis van de fotografie in Nederland. Dutch Eyes, p. 192, Uitgeverij Waanders, Zwolle 2007