A few years ago, in a field near Neuchâtel, Switzerland,  I slammed on my brakes because I saw a lone tree in a yellow field. The tree, half-dead and half-alive, was hanging to dear life as Harold Lloyd to the minute hand in this iconic image. I thought about Ivan Shishkin then, and his most emotionally powerful painting.


This is the painting, named after a popular poem at the time, “In the midst of flat dales”:

Ivan Shishkin, 1883,
Ivan Shishkin, 1883, In the midst of flat dales

It was 1883, the time of a suicidal depression for the artist. He was in his 50s. In 1880 he married one of his students, from the first female class in the Russian Art Academy. She died a year later, leaving Shishkin alone and devastated.

For most of his life, Shishkin was painting or etching forests (mostly Russian) in a way no one could. He was a documentarian, who loved painting from nature.  His typical painting would feature Tchaikovsky’s rhythm through a play of light, unbelievable depth, and authentic plants in their authentic state, given the season and time of day.

Like this “Oak Grove”, painted in 1887, when he recovered from the depression .

A sample of “typical Shishkin”: Oak Grove, 1887

Unlike most his other work, the lone oak tree he painted was done from imagination. Art historians believe the oak was painted from memories or sketches done during Shishkin’s trip to Switzerland.

I am sure it was a different oak (from mine), but they just felt the same not only because of their nationality.

Is it a landscape? Technically, yes. Philosophically, no. It is a self-portrait of a strong man in crisis, who believes he has enough vitality to survive and weather through it.

Given that Shishkin could make even an imaginary landscape look 100% authentic, it is one of the most convincing anti-depression paintings I know.

If you’ve been reading my blog before, you might be interested in answering these questions (I will answer them in a day or two, here, as an update):

  1. There is rhythm in this painting that makes the viewer’s eyes scan it vertically and horizontally. How is it created?
  2. What did the artist do to add authenticity to this imaginary landscape?
  3. How did the artist show he was lost and disoriented?

Thank you, the Daily Post, for the perseverance idea! 


  1. 1. Horizontal lines for the horizon and the clouds. Vertical lines in the tree and the path
    2. A lot od realistic detail at the foreground
    3. The path leads to nowhere

  2. 1-horizontal lines (horizon, clouds, hills/ditches) vs vertical ones (the road in the foreground, the tree)
    2-hmmm. well, the topography is very Russian, not Swiss. Also maybe the details of the plants in the foreground? typical Russian country road. very homey.
    3-the road is winding and changing direction. there’s also a stick somewhat obstructing the path.

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