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Sunday, 16 August 2009

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)

Above the Clouds at Sunrise, 1849.
American painter, landscape specialist and leading figure of the Hudson River School

By Alexandra A Jopp

Frederic Edwin Church was among the most celebrated artists of the late 1850s and 1860s. As Thomas Cole’s most successful pupil, Church worked as a young man within the milieu of the Hudson River School. He was described by historian Gwendolyn Owens as “a master of the panoramic landscape,”1 and by the 1850s, according to writer Joe Sherman, he “had become a painter to watch, one who critics claimed had a ‘true feeling for art’ and who was heading toward an ‘original path.’”2 Church’s harmonies of color, light and luminosity helped to turn historical landscape into a popular art form.

Hooker’s Party Coming to Hartford, 1846.
Falls of the Tequendama near Bogotá, New Granada (1864)

Church was born into a wealthy and prominent Connecticut family on May 4, 1826. He showed early artistic talent and, as a teenager, studied in his hometown with local painters Alexander Hamilton Emmons (1816-84) and Benjamin Hutchins Coe (1799-1883). In May 1844, Church moved to Catskill, N.Y., to work with noted landscape painter Thomas Cole. Church’s father, Joseph, a silversmith and watchmaker, paid $300 per year for technical instruction for his son. In accepting Church into his studio, Cole must have seen a young artist who shared his thoughts and spirits and held extraordinary promise. Church was only 19 years old when one of his paintings was accepted for exhibition by the National Academy of Design. Three years later, he became the youngest person ever to be granted full membership in the National Academy.

In the summer of 1850, Church made his first trip to Maine, and several seascape paintings resulted from the visit. Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1853, Church, inspired by German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and his scientific travelogues, made his first trip to South America. For five months, accompanied by his friend Cyrus Field (whose company would later be responsible for laying the first transatlantic cable), Church focused on landscape painting in relation to modern science, completing pencil studies and oil sketches of volcanoes, mountains and river scenes. Upon his return to New York, Church reproduced exotic tropical landscapes in such paintings as Tamaca Palms (1854, Corcoran Gallery of Art) and La Magdalena (1854, National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts.) However, the work that brought him his greatest fame in the United States and abroad was a panoramic view of Niagara Falls. Niagara (1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art) was completed in two months and was exhibited by itself throughout North America and England.

La Magdalena (Scene on the Magdalena), 1854.

The Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852.
In 1867, two years after losing a son and a daughter to diphtheria, Church and his family sailed for Europe. During the visit, he went to London, Rome and the Near East and studied classical sites in Greece. In the summer and fall, the family traveled through Switzerland and northern Italy before settling in Rome, where Church established a studio. During this time, the artist developed plans to build a Persian villa on a hilltop above his New York farm that which would offer him views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. Church, who was fascinated with Orientalism and exotica, never visited Persia, but the architectural features that he visualized share a common Islamic essence. The family moved into their new home in 1872. Seven years later, Church’s painting Icebergs (1861), which was inspired by an expedition to the coast of Labrador, Canada, became the first American painting to be sold for more than $1 million, bringing $2.5 million. Church’s paintings continue to set records on the art market. In 1989, Sotheby’s sold Home by the Lake (1852) for more than $8 million.3

Icebergs and Wreck in Sunset.
Autumn, 1875.
In his final years, Church continued to travel broadly. He spent winters in Mexico, escaping the harsh Northeast weather that was made more difficult by his rheumatism. His wife, Isabel, died in 1899, after which Church’s health declined. He died at the house of a friend in New York City, unable to get to his fabled and beloved home “Olana” (which is now a National Historic Landmark and a center for Church study.)

Church’s paintings are reminiscences on experiences gained from traveling around the world. His works present rural images from New England with the same elegance as tropical exotica from South America. As a landscape artist, Church, using a combination of romantic realism and ideological anatomy, established a new direction for American art.

In the Andes, 1878. 

1: Shipp, Steve. American Art Colonies, 1850-1930: A Historical Guide to America’s Original Art Colonies and Their Artists (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 66.

2: Shipp, Steve. American Art Colonies, 1850-1930: A Historical Guide to America’s Original Art Colonies and Their Artists (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 67.

3: Vogel, Carol. “Lost Treasure to Be Auctioned.” The New York Times, May 7 1999.

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