Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900)

Frederic Edwin Church was perhaps the best-known representative of the Hudson River School of landscape painting as well as one its most traveled. Born in Hartford in 1826, he was the privileged son of Joseph Church, a jeweler and banker of that city, who interceded with Connecticut scion and collector Daniel Wadsworth to persuade the landscape painter Thomas Cole to accept his son as a pupil. From 1844 to 1846, Church studied with Cole in his Catskill, New York, studio and accompanied him on sketching sojourns in the Catskill Mountains and the Berkshires of Massachusetts. At one point, the master characterized the student as having “the finest eye for drawing in the world.” Following his term with Cole, Church established a studio in New York City and quickly seized a reputation, less for the allegorical landscapes that had distinguished Cole’s output, than for expansive New York and New England views that synthesized sketches of varying locales into vivid compositions. In 1857, however, Church leapt to nationwide and even international prominence with his seven-foot-wide picture Niagara (Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which stunned spectators in New York and in Great Britain (where it was shown in 1857 and 1858) with its combination of breadth and uncanny verisimilitude.

By the late 1840s, Church had fallen under the spell of the renowned naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose treatises and travelogues based on his five-year (1799–1804) expedition in the New World were widely translated and read. In his culminating work, Cosmos (1845), Humboldt implored artists to travel and paint equatorial South America. In 1853, with the young entrepreneur Cyrus Field, Church made the first of two expeditions following Humboldt’s footsteps, chiefly in Colombia; the second, in 1857, in company with the landscape painter Louis Remy Mignot, exclusively in Ecuador. On the large and highly wrought paintings that Church executed based on the sketches from those two journeys, he secured his lasting reputation and became, with Albert Bierstadt, the best known and most successful painter of his generation. The New York exhibition of his ten-foot canvas, The Heart of the Andes (1859; 09.95), housed in an elaborate windowlike frame and illuminated in a darkened room by concealed skylights, was the most popular display of a single artwork in the Civil War era, attracting 12,000 people in three weeks to its New York premiere alone, then traveling to Britain and seven other American cities on a tour lasting two years. The exhibition of The Heart of the Andes in New York was said to have occasioned Church’s courtship and marriage to Isabel Carnes, in 1860, and the couple settled on a hillside farm overlooking the Hudson River at Hudson, New York.

Pursuing Humboldt’s global mandate and responding more particularly to the literature of Arctic exploration, in 1859 Church hired a bark to bear him and the Rev. Louis Legrand Noble, Thomas Cole’s biographer, to the north Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland to sketch icebergs. In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Church exhibited Icebergs: The North (Dallas Museum of Fine Arts), nearly equal in size to The Heart of the Andes, to now expectant audiences in New York and Great Britain. Subsequent major paintings of tropical and frigid subjects were typically at least seven feet wide and shown as special events in private galleries. Though Church had rarely shared his teacher’s taste for explicit moral and religious allegory in landscape art, he often disclosed both his patriotism and his piety by including pilgrimage crosses in his South American landscapes and brilliant sunsets, auroras, and rainbows overarching the terrain in major works such as Aurora Borealis (1865; Smithsonian American Art Museum) and Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866; Museum of Fine Arts, San Francisco), a pair of pictures that he conceived on the eve of the Union victory in the Civil War.

Church was executing the latter of the two pictures when he and his wife lost their two children to diphtheria a week apart in March 1865. To assuage their grief, they sojourned for several months in Jamaica, where the artist waged the most intense sketching campaign of his professional life, completing some of his most vivid and haunting oil studies of botanical growth and tropical light. In 1867, with the first child of their revived family as well as his mother-in-law, Church and his wife embarked on a pilgrimage of the Old World, primarily in the Holy Land. There they traced Jesus‘ mission through Palestine based on descriptions in the gospels. On his own, the artist also visited the rock city of Petra in Jordan and, later, after the family reached Rome in winter 1869, he sailed across the Adriatic to Athens expressly to admire and sketch the Parthenon. The Metropolitan Museum’s painting, The Parthenon (1871; 15.30.67), was the principal result of that sojourn. Church also produced a spectacular view of Jerusalem (1870; Nelson-Atkins Museum, Kansas City) and the Metropolitan’s The Aegean Sea (1877; 02.23).

The most imposing product of Church’s Old World travels may be El Khasné, Petra (1874), which he installed as a gift to his wife in the Persian-inspired “castle” (as he termed it) that he built in 1870–72 on his hilltop property in Hudson. Husband and wife dubbed the house “Olana” (based on a medieval geographer’s reference to a treasury storehouse in ancient Persia), and raised in it four children. In this period, Church also accepted the role of Parks Commissioner in New York City and became a founding trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The primary role Church assumed in the design and construction of his house coincided with the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually retarded if not arrested his artistic output and drove him to seek seasonal relief in annual winter visits to Mexico. The artist also suffered the gradual neglect from patrons and public felt by all the Hudson River School painters, and by the time of his death in New York City in 1900 Church had been nearly forgotten. Nonetheless, the Metropolitan mounted the first retrospective of his work in the year he died and his reputation gradually recovered after 1960. Moreover, Church’s devoted son Louis and his wife Sally continued to live at Olana until her death in 1964, by which time the artist’s revived reputation generated a movement to preserve the house and grounds, which remain today one of the exceptional historic sites in the New York State park system.