When photographing in the countryside, William Henry Fox Talbot frequently chose subjects that celebrated nature, which he often acknowledged as photography's true inventor and ultimate source for artistic inspiration. As he wrote in his celebrated six-volume book of calotypes entitled The Pencil of Nature:
A painter's eye will often be arrested where ordinary people see nothing remarkable. A casual gleam of sunshine, or a shadow thrown across his path, a time-withered oak, or a moss-covered stone may awaken a train of thoughts and feelings, and picturesque imaginings.1
Talbot's childhood tutor, George Butler, apparently agreed; he suggested trees as a subject for calotypes, for the medium might "exhibit the touch of the great artist, Nature."2 Shown without compositional embellishment in a centralized view, Talbot's Oak Tree invites the sort of romantic rumination described. Arresting the eye with its powerful silhouette, the leafless oak stands bare against the sky, its many gnarled limbs marking its age.
(Text by April Watson, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. The Pencil of Nature, vol. 2, plate vi caption. Facsimile reproduction printed by Hans P. Kraus with introduction by Larry J. Schaaf (New York, 1984).
2. Letter from Butler to Talbot dated March 1841, reproduced in part in Larry Schaaf, Out of the Shadows: Herschel, Talbot, and the Invention of Photography (New Haven, 1992), 119 (caption to fig. 75).
David and Mary Robinson, Sausalito, CA; NGA purchase, 1995.
- The First Century of Photography: New Acquisitions, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1995.
- Building a Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1997-1998, no. 85.
- Art for the Nation: Collecting for a New Century, National Gallery of Art, Washington, 2000-2001.
- Jammes, André. William H. Fox Talbot: Inventor of the Negative-Positive Process. New York, 1972, pl. 42.
- Buckland, Gail. Fox Talbot and the Invention of Photography. Boston, 1980, p. 169.
- Happy Birthday Photography. Exh. cat. Kunsthaus Zürich. Zürich, 1989, pl. 3.
- Schaaf, Larry J. The Photographic Art of William Henry Fox Talbot. Princeton, 2000: 25.