Root & Branch

Examining the Form and Language of Trees

Trees are beautiful. We’re often stopped in our tracks as we admire their changing colors and marvel in the diversity of their shapes, forms and attributes. Trees provide for us. They shelter us from the sun, rid the air of pollutants, supply building materials and even help to increase our property values. But what about the other, less obvious ways that trees affect our lives, sometimes without our even knowing it?

Trees in Art

The fact is that trees appear in multiple facets of our lives from our language to the way we view and process information. We “branch out” and we are “rooted” in things and places; common expressions that we use every day, not always realizing that they are also tree metaphors. We also utilize branching structures on a daily basis to more easily chart and understand data. It’s this very idea that drove the Root & Branch exhibition at the Princeton University Art Museum.

Curated by Joel Smith, Peter C. Bunnell Curator of Photography, Root & branch is an examination of the form of trees and branching structures and how they’ve become hardwired into our lives. “Trees are fundamental to the way we understand our world and with this exhibit I wanted to combine imagery from the world of art, science and information design that explains relationships and complexity in an intuitive way.”

Perhaps the simplest example of this is the family tree, used for generations as a way to visually depict the expansion of a family as it grows and adds new branches. Root & Branch features a beautiful american family tree created in 1916 by Jonathan Knight Tyson with pen, colored inks and touches of watercolor.

The oldest image of a branching structure in the exhibit can be seen in a bronze fragment that is estimated to be from the early 6th century b.c. While the trunk and branches are clear and unmistakable, the purpose and background of this piece remains a mystery.

Root & Branch features a number of beautiful photographs including two by Edward Weston and Eugene Atget that clearly demonstrate the similarities between trees and the human form. Similarly, a Roman statuette in the exhibition places the bottom of a human leg next to the base of a tree where a knot perfectly mirrors the kneecap nearby. A limb next to a limb. While Root & Branch covers a broad span of geography, style and medium, the common thread that runs through every piece leaves no doubt of the undeniable impact that trees and their form have on our daily lives.  Visit for more information on the Root & Branch exhibition.

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