By Carter B. Horsley
Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) is the most grandiloquent and vivid American landscape painter whose greatest works inspired awe about natural wonders and their splendor and who carried forward the "manifest destiny" of a wilderness that nurtured his teacher, Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of painting.
Whereas Cole knew the mountains and valleys of New York State and New England and had visited Europe, Church would explore afar and travel from the Artic to the erupting volcanoes of Central America and to the ruins of the Classical World in the Middle East. His exotic home, Olana, in Hudson, New York, was designed by architect Calvert Vaux, who helped Frederick Law Olmstead create Central Park in Manhattan, in a style that showed Moorish influences and whose contents include the memorabilia of Churchs vast travels.
Churchs early works clearly show the influence of Cole in their bucolic and pastoral scenes that epitomized the Hudson River School of landscape painting. As his first and most prominent student, Church was greatly influenced by Cole and paid homage to him in more than one painting. A few of Churchs early landscapes follow closely in the typical Hudson River School style established by Cole: horizontal pastoral scenes that accurately depict real sites at their best, which is to say, in marvelous light and only rarely encumbered with human intrusion: pure, gentle wilderness of memorable and tranquil beauty.
Such a comparison, however, belies Coles quite remarkable imagination and concern with symbolism and mans mystic and occasionally turbulent relationship with nature. Indeed, Coles early Catskill landscapes are not serene bucolic scenes but often are highlighted by passing storm clouds and broken tree trunks in the foreground. The large and lavish catalogue, which costs $50, for this major traveling exhibition, reproduces in black-and-white a major painted by Church that is a quintessential Colesque scene, "Storm in the Mountains," shown above, in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art but unfortunately is not in the exhibition. After Cole's death in 1848, Church would paint a less dynamic and impressive memorial picture to his teacher, a work more typical of the pastoral vein and "Storm in the Wilderness" is far more appropriate and and stronger tribute. It is perhaps Churchs greatest homage to Cole and reinterprets, according to Dr. Gerald L. Carr, the Church expert and the author of the catalogue, "a large, upright Cole painting of the 1830s (now known only through a print and an old photograph) of a Herculean dead tree clinging to a precipice." Dr. Carr is the author of the catalogue raisonée of Church's works at Olana, his upstate home, and is writing with Franklin Kelly of the National Gallery of Art and Kevin Avery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the catalogue raisonée of Church's paintings, a project that is being sponsored by Berry-Hill Galleries.
Coles content is temporal - you feel the weight of time passed and passing.
Churchs content is idyllic and majestic - you feel he has frozen time at perfect moments, captured, and at times orchestrated, Natures best at the best moment.
Both artists generally find man rather small in the grand and luxuriant sweep of things, but both are compelled to make men marvel.
While some paintings of the Luminists and the Rocky Mountain artists, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, are more beautiful, the oeuvres of Cole and Church are formidable and more full of meaning and messages. Their best works are immersions into the soul of a place as it appears to a humble, but perceptive, alert and curious traveler. Bierstadt's major canvases are breathtakingly theatrical and Moran was greatly influenced by the pyrotechnical visions of Turner and both are justly famed for their awe of the natural beauty of the American West. All four offered grandiose and heavenly visions.
In addition to his great landscapes, Cole is famous for two ambitious series of paintings, "The Voyage of Life," one version of which is in the Munson-Williams-Procter Museum and another in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and "The Course of Empire," which is at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan. Cole was not content to be merely a landscape painter and he ventured ambitiously into larger, and occasionally mythological and religious themes.
Church, on the hand, was only a landscape painter, but what landscapes!
Whereas some prominent members of the Hudson River School, such as John F. Kensett and Sanford Robinson Gifford, would evolve their styles into what became later known as Luminism, creating works that placed almost a greater emphasis on the quality of light than the specific scene, Church extended the richness of his visions into ever grander, but very realistic visions.
In the second half of the 19th Century, he would have only one real rival as Americas most famous painter, Bierstadt, whose fiery Western sunsets and technique, on most days, were just about as impressive as Churchs. Winslow Homer was Americas greatest painter, but his works never attempted the bravura spectacles popularly associated with Church and Bierstadt. Bierstadt was the greatest painter of the American West although Moran runs a close second. Moran studied under James Hamilton, a Philadelphia marine painter who was highly influenced by Joseph William Mallard Turner, the great English painter of the early 19th Century whose abstract impressionism and colorful works were many generations ahead of his day. Bierstadt and Church, however, were not especially influenced Turner and focused merely on the magnificent glories of nature at its best.
Where then do Cole and Church sit in the pantheon of landscape artists?
Turner, of course, is at the pinnacle. Van Gogh, Monet and Cezanne occupy the second tier, the first for his highly charged and emotional visions, the second for his bottomless well of brilliant compositions and fine impressionism and the third for his choppy, modern brushwork. There are a great many early Chinese painters, mostly from the Song and Yuan dynasties, such as Ma Yuan, Wang Meng, Fan Kuan, and Chao Meng-Fu who probably should occupy the third tier for their fabulous stylistic monumentality and fine lines. Cole and Church sit on the fourth tier for bringing pure landscape painting to its apotheosis. The fifth tier should be occupied by Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and Matta for their Surrealism and by Hubert Robert, whose idyllic and romantic scenes are consistently fine. The sixth tier contains Bierstadt, Moran and Georgia OKeefe as well as Sasseta for their dazzling and memorable artistry. The seventh tier probably should include Albert Pinkham Ryder, Ralph Albert Blakelock, George Inness and Edward Steichen for their poetic vision and tonalism. The eighth tier of the pantheon should include the brilliantly bold work and stylistic inventions of Seurat, Derain, and Diebenkorn. Corot, Gainsborough, Constable and Caspar David Friedrich, great stylists. The ninth tier would include Salomon Ruysdael, and van Goyen for their historic importance and consistent bucolic vision, and John Martin and Vernet for their dynamic and dramatic compositions. The tenth tier would have Patinir, Rembrandt, Claude Lorrain, Gustave Courbet, and Winslow Homer for their historic importance and talents and Gerhard Richter and Anselm Kiefer for their intensity.
"Perhaps because [Baron Alexander von] Humboldt [(1769-1859), the great Prussian natural scientist and geographer and a significant influence on Church] had been bowled over by the Andes, not the Rockies, or because other painters were making it their forte during the fifties, Church was not lured by the far West - not sufficiently, anyway, to go there even late in life....With one notable exception, this painting of the Natural Bridge in Virginia , Church restricted his studio output of United States subjects to New York State and New England, spilling over into Canada," Mr. Carr observed in his catalogue essay for the exhibition that was launched April 24, 2000 at the impressive quarters of the Berry-Hill Gallery just to the east of the Frick Collection on East 70th Street off Fifth Avenue and will travel after July 15, 2000 to the Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago, the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum and the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art.
"The Natural Bridge," Virginia," shown above, was the first painting "Church tested in Britain" as "he or its first owner, Cyrus Field, sent it to the London Royal Academy exhibition of 1852, a year before bringing it to the National Academy of Design," Carr noted. "A youthful George Washington reputedly carved his initials on it. Its most famous admirer was Thomas Jefferson, third U.S. President, who for a time owned it, liked to show it to visitors, and described it eloquently in his Notes on the State of Virginia (1784)," Carr continued.
Carr aptly sums up Churchs oeuvre:
"We rightly associate Church with the Western Hemisphere in its epic extent and variety. Through his eyes, in his hands, the New World looks immense, fresh, and febrile: Niagara Falls and wooded wildernesses of the northeastern United States; lush valleys, rugged plateaus, active volcanoes, and snow-capped peaks of the Andes; teeming jungles and spectacular sunsets on the hilly island of Jamaica in the Caribbean; icebergs and aurora borealis of the sub-Artic. Atmospherically and geologically spellbinding, Churchs Pan-America glows brightly, a collection of Edens before the fall For the adult Church, the essence of the Old World lay not so much in the trodden paths of populated Europe, or in rugged Continental mountain ranges, but instead in the architectural ruins, worn caravan trails, and deserts of the Near East. For him, humanmade remnants clustered in arid Mediterranean settings complemented the natural splendor of the New World as withered or fossilized flowers complement live ones."
"At best he is a highly approachable, consummate technician. When he wished to, he could cover large areas of canvas speedily. Around 1860, brimming with confidence, he flared that asset, producing three important studio pictures of differing sizes and characters, Morning in the Tropics (1858 ), Oosisoak (1861 ), and Under Niagara (1862 ), each within a days time or less. Further, he consciously adjusted his paint handling from picture to picture, and from one chronological period to another. His lifetime repertory with a brush ran from precisionist to wiry to mellifluous to granular to dashing to crusty to diaphanous ."
"The painter best known nowadays for what might be termed visual symphonies or operas also regularly created concertos, hymns, and smaller works - the equivalents of sonatas, études, and lieder."
Mr. Carr quotes a "local commentator" about the unveiling in 1863 of Churchs "largest and foremost portrayal of the Ecuadorian volcano Cotapaxi that had been commissioned by James Lenox," the famous New York investor and philanthropist and which is now in the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The commentator "likened the unveiling to a new novel by Victor Hugo, or a new poem by [Alfred] Tennyson ," adding that "Mr. Churchs themes are generally of startling magnitude. He seems to disdain the commonplace. He has ranged an entire hemisphere in search of material."
"Much of Churchs artistic appeal," Carr wrote, "stems from the vivid imagination implicit in his painted images, as well as from their apparent authority and variety. Put another way, his paintings regularly possess strength, seeming self-sufficiency, and multiformity identifiably his own. One of those strengths is magnitude, - impressiveness, grandeur, power, opulence, and concomitant nobility, which Church intended to be inviting, and which most viewers find just that. Amplitude is his ally, in two, three, and four dimensions. The formats of his largest canvases, The Heart of the Andes, of 1859 [which was inspired in part by the writings of Baron von Humbolt and which Church had planned to send to Berlin for von Humbolt to see, but which was not completed before the geographer passed away] , The Icebergs, of 1861 , and Niagara Falls from the American Side, of 1867 , are spacious enough to walk into. The illusionistic environments he contrives tempt the viewer optically, if not corporeally, to take that step. Another arrow in Churchs quiver is depth, metaphoric as well as visual. Church bids his viewers to linger with his painted re-creations, and, by extension, to linger with him. Taking the viewer, as it were, by his hand, giving him vast expanses in which to roam, he enjoins him to perambulate, probe, and ponder. He highlights figures, human-made objects, animals and individual and clustered natural features. His Latin American foregrounds, in particular, glitter like open jewel boxes. Clothing his distances with tangible, breathable atmosphere, he devises lighting effects intense, subtle, supple and steady. He gives trademark prominence to his skies Churchs characteristic creations are revels of emphatic shapes, strong chiaroscuro, prismatic colors, deep spaces, sweeping atmospheric effects, resplendent lighting, and wealths of orchestrated, engrossing detail. The details entice us to tarry while encouraging us to take our visual footings .Churchs drawings, color studies, and studio paintings assert his gifted visual acuity and hand-eye coordination. He possessed near-perfect visual pitch. Painting and drawing came so readily to him that colleagues gaped and he feigned speechlessness when quizzed about his skills. His teacher, Cole, a man not readily impressed, said that Church, by his twentieth birthday, had the finest eye for drawing in the world."
Carr recounts the exploits of many famous explorers of the day, such as Elisha Kent Kane, whose Artic trips influenced Church, and noted that music was very important to Church and he was close with New Orleans-borned pianist and composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869) with whom he shared "an affection for the tropics," according to Carr.
"Niagara was the nexus of Churchs greatest artistic success. He visited it at least four times, twice in 1856, once in 1858, and again in 1875. Each of his three major studio paintings of the subject , produced at five-year intervals, depicted the site from a differing vantage point. Focusing on the American falls, the latest canvas in this sequence, (1867, National Gallery Scotland...) is also Churchs largest painting measured by surface area. Sent to Paris incognito to be chromolithographed during the International Exposition of 1867, it made its public debut at a London commercial gallery in February, 1868. After that, it returned to the United States for showings in Boston, Philadelphia and New York before entering the collection of New York department store entrepreneur, Alexander Turney Stewart (1803-1876). Stewart purchased it from the artist who had reacquired it from its first owner, the New York art dealer Michael Knoedler [whose gallery still exists and is on the same block as the Berry-Hill Galleries]. Knoedlers contracted purchase sum - presumably recouped by Church - was $15,000, the highest the artist ever obtained. Stewart certified his prize with a portrait of Church painted on the coved ceiling of the art gallery at his New York town house. Eventually, in 1887, a wealthy New York businessman of Scottish birth, John Stewart Kennedy (1830-1909), bought the painting at the New York auction of Stewarts collection. As a gesture to his native country, he immediately donated the mammoth canvas to the National Gallery of Scotland, putting it on a boat to Edinburgh. After its arrival, coincident with the opening of the "American Exhibition" in London, it was hung in the octagon of William Henry Playfairs museum building, generating complimentary articles in local newspapers. Those paragraphs comprise the final extensive press coverage given to a Church painting during his lifetime."
This painting, shown above, is only being shown in this traveling exhibition at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.
His first painting of Niagara, of course, was exhibited frequently during its first two decades, winning a medal at the Paris International Exposition of 1867 and was eventually bought at auction by William Wilson Corcoran, the founder of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., for $12,500 in December 1876 [which] set a record for American art. "After its New York unveiling in March 1857, various American artists, among them George Inness, used the watershed image (so to say) as target practice (so to speak) for the rest of the century," Carr wrote.
Although the great large horizontal painting of Niagara Falls at the Corcoran is the first painting one associates with Church, his Central American pictures are probably his finest.
"Paradisiacal Latin America was a Church specialty," according to Carr:
"He journeyed to the continent of South America twice, in 1853 and 1857, to the Caribbean island of Jamaica once, in 1865, and to Mexico fifteen times altogether between 1881 and 1900 .The opening of South America to outside economic investment during the 1850s, and the concurrent Panama Railroad project, would have been major incentives for Church. Does that mean that subsequently he placed his studio paintings before Anglo-American viewers like some latter-day, English-speaking Protestant conquistador? Some present-day historians and art historians infer that this was the case, and there is something to the idea. As the 1850s began, American expeditions uniting scientific and commercial objectives fanned out through Central and South America. Churchs traveling companion in Colombia and Ecuador in 1853 was Cyrus Field. In March 1855, the month that Church publicly presented his first studio paintings of South American scenery at the National Academy of Design, the Panama railroad, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, was inaugurated after three years of construction. Horace Greeley's New York Tribune touted the feat as 'the greatest event of the century.'...Lest we cite Church for colonialism, opportunism, and profiteering, however, I suggest again that his tropical journeys and the images he produced from them evolved mainly through his preferences, proficiencies, and personal energy. That supposition is attested to by the fact that few other nineteenth-century landscape painters delved deeply into South America. ...The lone South American landscape specialist of repute who worked in Britain was an emigrant American, Louis Rémy Mignot (1841-1870), Church's colleague and traveling companion in Ecuador in 1857."
Church and Mignot, Carr wrote, "were tracking the sublime" and "they found it there in profusion. "Delighted by the still-smoking Cotopaxi, he and Mignot made a "serious tramp" (Church's phrase) from Quito and Riobamba to Sangay, a continuously active volcano shrouded in mystery. Humboldt had heard and written about Sangay but had not observed it, and few local persons had seen it. Church closed that gap. Making a solo ascent of an overlooking hill, he beheld what he termed 'the most terrible volcano in the world' in thunderous eruption just before sunset. Outbound from Riobamba, and while returning in the evening, he and Mignot saw Chimborazo in full splendor."
"If we may judge by the comments in 1859 of his close friend (and previously the confidant of Cole, Rev. Louis L. Noble, Church believed that the earth had evolved through a series of violent upheavals. In any event, Noble wrote that church's own Andean landscapes exemplified that view of natural history," Carr wrote. Noble traveled with Church to Labrador that year and wrote a pamphlet about their trip from which Church would create his famous Artic painting, "The Icebergs" now in the Dallas Museum of Art and one of his most spectacular creations, as well as the "Aurora Borealis," another stupendous work.
Carr notes that a three-volume, multi-author compilation entitled, "The Encyclopedia of Geography," that was updated in 1846, provided the following "ecstatic, tempered by trepidation" description of the great South American mountain ranges and volcanoes: "Commencing at the northern border of Colombia, and throwing some lateral branches along its coast towards Coro and Caracas, it continues in its progress southwards, always swelling in magnitude, till, almost beneath the equator, it shoots up into the summits of Chimborazo and Antisana, believed till lately the loftiest points on the earth; while it spreads terror by the tremendous volcanoes of Pinchincha and Cotopaxi."
From Quito, the authors said that 11 of the loftiest volcanic cones of the Andes could be observed and they singled out Chimborazo as "the giant of the west." "The 'truncated cone' of Chimborazo, sublime in appearance from every vantage point, was especially ravishing when seen 'from the coast of the Pacific at nearly 200 miles distance, whence it resembles an enormous semitransparent dome defined by the deep azure of the sky; dim, yet too decided in outline to be mistaken for a cloud. ' The authors then turned to the local active volcanoes, 'the most tremendous ...in the world.' The ruling presence was Cotopaxi, 'the most formidable [volcano] in the Andes, and, indeed, on the globe.'...Finally, after recapitulating Cotopaxi's historical eruptions,the authors reported that El Altar, a stunted snow peak near Chimborazo had previously loomed taller than its neighbor until an eruption rendered it "a mass of tremendous ruin,'" Carr wrote.
Two complementary Church paintings of South America, "The Cordilleras: Sunrise (1854, private collection, reproduced in the catalogue but not included in the exhibition), and "Scene on the Magdalene" (1854, National Academy of Design, shown only at Berry-Hill Galleries), were, according to Carr, conceived as a pair and "their imagery resonates with Thomas Cole's diptychs and polyptychs such as The Course of Empire...., without, however, resorting to Cole's sequencings or his exhortations about historical human failings."
Not all of Church's paintings were gigantic.
"Our Flag" (Indianapolis Museum of Art, 1864), "proclaims Churchs three-pronged patriotic message: the North is rock-solid; the North has weathered the storm; the North will emerge triumphant," Carr wrote, noting that it had been preceded three years earlier by "Our Banner in The Sky," a small work not in the exhibition but which is reproduced as an oil over chromolithograph mounted on canvas in the collection of the Olana State Historic Site. The earlier work is more extraordinary as it shows red and white stripes of clouds behind a tilted dead tree trunk under ominous skies to evoke an almost abstract image of the American flag.
Church also painted many small charming views of the Hudson River and the Catskills from his Olana, his home in upstate New York that has many of his best works such as his scene of Petra and is open to the public as a museum.