Church, Frederic (1826-1900)
Frederic Church (1826-1900)
Hudson River School. During the middle decades of the nineteenth century there emerged a group of American painters influenced by the currents of European Romanticism and inspired by the natural grandeur of their homeland. Several of these landscape painters came to be known collectively as the Hudson River School. In the 1870s the landscapes of Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran brought the grandeur of the American West into the popular imagination. But in the genre of landscape painting Frederic Church became its most famous and admired exponent.
Early Years. Born on 4 May 1826 in Hartford, Connecticut, to Joseph Church, a prominent and wealthy businessman, and Eliza Janes Church, Frederic studied art briefly in Hartford and displayed considerable ability. In 1844 he became the first pupil accepted by Thomas Cole, the artist considered to be most representative of the Hudson River School. From Cole he derived much of his philosophy of landscape painting, especially the notion that the artist’s role was to express not only the physical aspect of the external world but also observations about the human condition.
Style. At age nineteen Church began exhibiting works at the National Academy of Design. His first success, Rev. Thomas Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636, is a historical landscape celebrating the founding of his hometown. This work and others, such as July Sunset (1847), show the influence of Cole but display Church’s trademark attention to detail and precise rendering of light.
Success. Church established a studio in New York City in 1847, where he worked in winters painting finished pictures from oil and graphite sketches. Summers were spent close to nature. In 1850 he made his first trip to Maine, whose landscapes were to figure in many of his paintings, such as Beacon, off Mount Desert Island (1851). Around this time he also began reading German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (1845-1862), which led him to produce paintings that combined panoramic vistas with scientifically correct detail, as in his New England Scenery (1851). Inspired by Humboldt, Church made his first trip to South America in the spring of 1853, returning to New York with many sketches of the scenery. The first finished work based on these sketches, La Magdalena (1854), appeared at the National Academy of Design in spring of 1855 and was highly acclaimed, as was View on the Magdalena River (1857).
Return to Latin America. But greater adulation was still to come. Niagara, first displayed at the National Academy in 1857, captured the grandeur of the falls as no other painting had before and was seen by thousands in American and England. In spring of that year he returned to South America, this time staying in Ecuador. The first painting from these sketches was Heart of the Andes (1859), regarded by many as his masterpiece. During this period Church produced signature pieces such as Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), The Icebergs (1861), and Cotopaxi (1862).
Crisis of Spirit. The year that Church displayed Heart of ’the Andes was also when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. The implications of Darwin, and of the accumulation of scientific knowledge in general, seemed to provoke in Church a crisis of spirit. For the Transcendentalist-influenced Church, nature was the theater of man’s mystic regeneration, a phenomenon of providential design. He saw his art was a means of bringing mankind into harmony with God’s universe. But perhaps there was no grand design in nature, and his confident, optimistic renderings of nature came to seem out of place as times changed.
Later Years. After the Civil War Church continued to travel and sketch, visiting Jamaica in 1865 and Europe and the Middle East in 1867-1869. Questioning his own ideal of the union of science, religion, nature, and art, he appeared to be turning to the Holy Land for answers. One painting to result from this journey was Jerusalem (1870), considered one of his better later works. His paintings from this trip show the influence of English landscape painter J. M. W. Turner in a greater emphasis on visionary atmospheric effects and the transient effects of light and climate. Church’s paintings, however, fell from favor during the last decades of his life, as collectors discovered Impressionism and as artists began to favor less sublime portrayals of nature. He spent his later years at Olana, his house overlooking the Hudson River, producing oil sketches and continuing to travel, especially to Maine and Mexico. At the time of his death on 7 April 1900 in New York City, his art was unappreciated by critics and unknown to younger artists. But with a renewed appreciation in the twentieth-century for nineteenth-century landscape painting, Frederic Church is again recognized as its preeminent artist.
Frederic E. Church: Under Changing Skies: Oil Sketches and Drawings from the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design, Smithsonian Institution (Philadelphia: Smith Edwards Dunlap, 1992);
David C. Huntington, The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era (New York: Braziller, 1966);
Frances P. Smyth, ed., American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection (Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1989).