Time is not a theme of the work as it is of, say, contemporary still lives. There is movement, activity: a carriage traveling, a behatted person fishing, cows grazing, an artist etching, a couple frolicking in the shadows. On a longer time scale, trees and cities growing, and sea becoming land. But this interchange of state is not, or not obviously, here evoked as the devouring menace of Time which wastes all things - rather, there is a humdrum, cyclical time of days and years in which we act. Much more clearly thematized is the social world of work, creation and procreation, and the distance that separates actors from each other as they pass each other by, unknowing. Social and spatial relations, not temporal ones, are the immediate object of the print.
Nonetheless this print works temporally. It does so in two ways. First, it structures our viewpoint to be temporary and unstable: as we saw, we are located at an elevated standpoint, with the trunks of the trees at eye level. It appears to follow then that we, too, are on a high road; the diagonal of the road on which the trees perch connects with the slight rise of the printing plate itself somewhere to the right of the painting, enhancing our own sense of travel. As our gaze moves from left to right, we come closer to the subject matter, as if we were in fact moving closer.
The other characters on high ground are a passing carriage and a sketching artist; each in its way is a stand-in for both Rembrandt and us: observant, distant, and transitory. Moving to the right beyond the frame.
Here it is worth pointing out how artificial is the exercise i am engaged in now, of circling and sampling the etching as i attempt to build a narrative analysis. Use of details is highly useful for the purpose of communicating a narrative (and helps break up the wall-of-text effect). It in no way corresponds to the experience of the work (in my case on a wall, which we know has always been a display modality for etchings), which is one of active movement from left to right or right to left, perhaps punctuated by a moving closer, a peering further into the depths of the landscape. But the whole never disappears, and so its power to situate the viewer spatially as mobile in the landscape is ever present in a way that it is not when manipulating the digital object.
The other way in which Rembrandt evokes time is of course weather (in French the same word: in search of lost weather?). The etching is framed by a stormy sky, with dark clouds above and streaming rain to the left suggesting a stage curtain about to fall. To this large motion is added the apparent seething of the most distant clouds and, at the same time, birds flying into what seems to be (at least due to their presence) clear sky.
These lines of ink convey several things. They depict, with great skill, a stormy sky; or rather they evoke it well enough that we complete the image, transpose all of our experiences with stormy skies, add in colors and light and most crucially, emotion. Of course all representation relies on the viewer to fill in the gaps, but there is clearly a difference between the more schematic and obviously artificial mode chosen here and highly specific depiction of, in particular, the three trees themselves, in which the medium is disguised. Given the small size and monochrome nature of this piece, a depiction of a stormy sky so conceived would have been less awe-ful than this one, which requires the viewer to more fully engage her memories and experiences.
The several distinct layers of crosshatching, as well as differing weights of lines, communicate the impression of great depth. The many directionalities of the lines create a sense of movement and instability, and the eye wanders around the clouds, fascinated.
Rembrandt, at this point in the etching, draws attention to its facture, to its coalescing from a large number of lines. And because he does this, the lines themselves, as well as what they represent, create the two key impressions of depth and movement, of great space and little time, which set the stage for the entirety of the scene.
The facture of the storm clouds suggest an appropriate mode of viewing, but this mode is ambiguous. On the one hand, we have the sense of a fleeting moment, a brief opening into great distance. On the other hand, the storm clouds insist on their irreality, their status as etching, and by extension the long and painstaking process of their creation. So, on the one hand, the viewer seems almost to intrude on a private moment of the universe, by accident to be present when distance and light break in upon the world; on the other she is made aware that the moment shown is fabricated and static, not really a moment at all.
This etching makes visible the means by which these three stunted little trees come to signify much more than that: their framing, both by the overall arch of clouds which define the scene in general and by the storm clouds in the rear, which echo the shape of the trees themselves, focusing the eye towards them; the way that they are outlined directly onto white paper, made monumental and distinct from their surroundings by the stark contrast at their edges; and the insistence on the transience of both effects.
The combination of these three factors is an impression of revelation, of the inbreaking of meaning, or perhaps rather meaningfulness (but isn't that an ugly word?).
The trees themselves remain obtrusively ordinary, even as the light and the frame give them gravitas.
One of the ways we are tempted to resolve this contradiction is by thinking of something coming through or behind the trees. Indeed, the stark contrast between the dark shadows on the trees and cast by them and the very bright landscape behind confirms the sense that the trees are, if anything, in the way.
What is perhaps difficult to see from a digital reproduction is the transparency of the trees themselves.
An etching effectively is composed of two layers: paper and ink, applied in this as in most cases at one moment in time from a singular printing plate. Although there are many ways to differentiate within the ink layer - through different weight of line, the use of burin and drypoint (most visible in the fishing figure at far left) as well as etching, and very often in Rembrandt the addition of clouds of ink to the printing plate outside of the incised lines - the paper layer is largely undifferentiated. Most of the time, this is unproblematic: the viewer of a print abstracts paper into "lighter color" and allows it to signify whatever context requires it to signify - here a plank of wood, there the open sky. Cross-hatching and other techniques are read as differing shades and textures, and then the viewer projects the whole thing into a three-dimensional landscape. It's a complicated process, made more so by the consistent awareness of facture, of the (here virtuosic) lines of ink that bring the image into being.
In a small, barely noticeable way, this process breaks down in the trunk of these trees. I can identify three factors: first, the heightened contrast between dark and light, such that swathes of untouched paper are juxtaposed with densely crosshatched representations of rough bark; second, here paper as a highlight in the foreground is adjacent to paper as light in the background, separated only by an outline; third, the light which strikes the trees comes from the side, but the effect of the clouds is such that one thinks it would come from behind.
In person - and hopefully i've said enough that this will come through even when all is homogenized into pixels - the impression is unmistakably that light comes through the trees. The trees are made to be transparent, such that something (meaning, Beauty, intimations of eternity...) shines through them. And all the time it is piercingly clear that that which transpears is merely the paper itself and the light reflected off it.
To return to the question of time, then, i would argue that there are two different temporalities at play here, each structured around a contradiction or paradox. In the sphere of the signified, we have the cyclical time of life and work, the rushing time of the storm, and the eternity of the moment which breaks through them. In the sphere of the signifier, we have the brief, almost punctual instant depicted, the long and painstaking process of depiction, and the (relatively; i.e. apart from the slow and ineluctable degradation of all objects) static nature of the resulting work. The success of this print is that all of these levels of temporality are visible and maintained in tension with each other.
Both of these concerns - how eternity breaks into ordinary experience, and how art transfigures experience, including the experience of eternity, to preserve it - are of course the central concerns of Proust's writing, especially in the climactic recollection-moments, of which the Three Trees is one.