Les Arbres (The Trees), 1890s
Odilon Redon, French, 1840–1916
Charcoal on paper
19 3/4 × 14 3/4in. (50.2 × 37.5cm) Frame (outer): 28 × 22 × 1 1/2 in. (71.1 × 55.9 × 3.8 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Harry C. Hanszen

Habits of Mind

  • OVERCOME FEAR Overcome fear of ambiguity / fear of failure or being wrong / fear of the unknown
  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

Classifying Trees

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

•  Observe trees, record observations, and then classify the trees.

•  Classify organisms as abiotic or biotic






Overcome Fear

Observe Details

Connecting to the Work of Art

The towering trees in this masterful charcoal drawing by Redon may recall the artist’s childhood home, an overgrown estate in the southwestern French town of Peyrelebade.  The drawing reveals the artist’s careful observation of nature, combined with an interest in romantic subject matter.


The artist places the viewer low in the foreground, looking up at the towering trees whose height is enhanced by the cropping of the composition. Redon skillfully uses the tones of the charcoal to suggest the textures of the trees and grasses. The rendering of the trees relies on the contrast between light and dark tones to define forms, and the pale buff color used for the highlights is actually the color of the paper itself. The light and shadows playing over the surfaces create a mysterious, somewhat eerie mood.


Redon is best known for his pastels of flowers, and for renderings in diverse media of fantastic, often mystical subjects. Redon received his early artistic training in the city of Bordeaux, then later in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1879 Redon published his first album of lithographs, and during the 1880s he occasionally exhibited his mysterious prints and drawings.  He studied the use of line in works by artists such as Albrecht Dürer, as well as contrasts of light and dark in Rembrandt’s work. His interest in science led him to study Darwin, anatomy, and images seen through a microscope. For additional information about Albrecht Dürer, see Saint Eustace.


Redon worked exclusively in black and white from 1870 until the mid-1890s, creating hundreds of charcoal drawings, including The Trees. He called black “the most essential, the prince of colors.”¹ and often said that one could attain such an immense variety of tone in black and white that color was unnecessary. It was not until 1895 that Redon began to work in color.




1.  George Heard Hamilton, Painting and Sculpture in Europe, 1880-1940 (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1972), p. 81.


  • What do you notice about this artwork? Look closely at the shapes and the use of light. How does the artist use light and dark elements to delineate different areas in the scene?

  • Is this a painting or a photograph? How do you know?

  • Does the artist want us to recognize this scene? Why or why not? What do you think he wants us to focus on?

  • Notice the lack of a horizon line and the close cropping of the photograph. How does this differ from a more traditional landscape photograph?

  • What does the black and white color tone achieve? How would it be different if the artwork had colors? What colors would you expect to see?


  • What do you think is the most important element within the scene? Discuss how the artist creates a sense of monumentality by cropping his image. What does this tell you about his view on nature?

  • What season do you think this is? Why? Does it matter?

  • How is this work different from an everyday photograph? Discuss the compositional tools and how they create an image that is both formally compelling and interesting in content.

  • What feelings does this work evoke? Look at color, composition and scale.

  • How do you think the artist creates tone in this work, even though the image is black and white?

  • How would this work be different if the artist photographed the trees from afar? Do you think the artist wanted to challenge traditional landscape photographs?

  • This artist’s style is different from that of both professional photographers and amateurs. Do you think the artist was looking to show us reality or something different? What?

  • The artist demonstrates that photographs could rival paintings in their scale, individuality, and expressiveness. What do you think about the relationship between a photograph and a painting? Is a photograph always a true reflection of reality?

Connecting to the Classroom

•  Study the work of art and try to determine the types of trees depicted. List the details that help in classifying the trees:  bark, leaves, shape, size, etc.

•  Discuss the artists’ intent in creating this work of art. Is creating accurate representations of the trees important? Why or why not? Compare the ways in which this artist characterizes and represents trees with a scientist’s interest in classification.

•  Choose one of the art works and classify the organisms that are represented as abiotic or biotic.


•  Learn the parts of a tree.  Study the main groups of trees and the characteristics of each to learn how trees are classified. Are trees part of an abiotic or biotic ecosystems?

•  Study trees native to the local area and conduct a field investigation.  Draw or photograph the trees near the school.  Record the entire tree – leaves, bark, branches, and roots, if visible.  Gather and observe twigs, leaves, bits of bark, and pine cones that have fallen from the trees.

•  Mount drawings or photographs and label them by name and classification. Record data in a graphic organizer.

•  Create a collage of the gathered twigs, leaves, and other materials.

(see Art Lesson: Classifying Trees- Collage, pg. 8)

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.