Frederic Edwin Church, Part 2

For those of you who have just landed on this page I suggest you go back to my previous blog which looks at Frederic Church’s early life and talks a little about his exhibition at the National Gallery, London which I visited last week.

Our Banner in the Sky by Frederic Edwin Church (1861)
Our Banner in the Sky by Frederic Edwin Church (1861)

Another beautiful and moving historical painting by Frederic Church which was on display at the exhibition and which I found very moving was a small oil painting entitled Our Banner in the Sky which Frederic Church completed in 1861.  I stood before this work, fascinated by the way in which Church had cleverly depicted the image of the Stars and Stripes American flag in tatters against an amazing daybreak landscape with its red and white bands of clouds.  Church had painted this shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter by General Beauregard and his Confederate troops in January 1861 , which signalled the start of the American Civil War, which tragically went on to cost so many American lives.   In the work we see a bare and tall tree slightly leaning over, which acts as a flagpole for the flag which blends in with the early morning sky.  In it, we see the North Star depicted through a patch of blue sky.  Church has cleverly managed to create a highly patriotic scene which in some ways connects the American landscape with the Northern cause.  It was a heartfelt cry for unity which sadly was not listened to. It was such a popular work that the Manhattan art dealer, Goupil & Co. commissioned Church to produce a chromolithograph of the work and, within a few months, hundreds of copies were bought up by the public.

Isabel Carnes Church by Frederic Church (1860)
Isabel Carnes Church by Frederic Church (1860)

It was during the New York exhibition of his Andes painting that Frederic Church met Isabel Carnes.  In 1860 just three months before his marriage to Isabel, Church bought some 126 acres of farmland, close to the towns of Hudson and Catskill and situated on a south sloping hill, overlooking the Hudson River.  He was familiar with this site as he had visited the area whilst on a painting trip with Thomas Cole in 1845.   As he still lived in New York, this new acquisition would be the family country get-away.   Church employed the foremost architect of the time, Richard Morris Hunt, to construct a cottage and design this ferme ornée.  The term means an ‘ornamented farm’, and describes a country estate laid out partly according to aesthetic principles and partly for farming.  Church and his wife referred to the small cottgae on the estate as their Cosy Cottage and it was surrounded by gardens and orchards and Church even had a section of marshland drained so as to build his own expansive ten acre lake.  Over time he bought up more of the adjoining land and eventually his estate encompassed 250 acres.

Fern Walk, Jamaica by Frederic Church (1865)
Fern Walk, Jamaica by Frederic Church (1865)

He and his wife lead a settled and happy life and he spent most of his time tending to his farm but his happiness was shattered in March 1865 when both his young children contracted diphtheria and died a week apart.  In an attempt to counteract the intense grief suffered after their children’s death, he and his wife along with some friends travelled to Jamaica where, for five months, Frederic immersed himself in a painting frenzy whilst his wife collected numerous species of ferns which she would later bring back home and which would form part of her fern garden.  Isabel’s interest in ferns and Frederic’s love of depicting nature in his painting were combined in his 1865 work entitled Fern Walk, Jamaica in which Church depicts a narrow path winding through luxuriant plants and ferns.  The shades of greens and browns which he used in depicting the native flora is breathtaking.  Frederic Church loved his stay in Jamaica.  He loved sketching plein air in the tropical light and, on his return to America, would often encourage other landscape artists to venture on painting trips to the Caribbean island.  In a letter he wrote to the landscape artist, Charles de Wolf Bramwell, he extolled the Fern Walk area of the island, writing:

“…the vegetation, next to that on the Magdalena River, the finest I ever saw –– The ferns, especially in the region known as Fern Walk — excelled every place…”

Ed Deir, Petra Jordan by Frederic Church (1868)
Ed Deir, Petra Jordan by Frederic Church (1868)

The couple returned home from Jamaica and in 1866 Isabel Church gave birth to a son, Frederic Junior.   The following year Frederic and Isabel, along with their son and Isabel’s mother, set off on a two-year long journey of Europe and the Holy Land.   They visited Jerusalem and from there headed to Jordan where Church, after an arduous ten day journey by mule, arrived at the ancient city of Petra.  During the long trip Church continually sketched and painted.  It was a trip which was fraught with danger from not only local bandits, but from the native porters which were helping Church’s party get to their destination.  These Arabs were very superstitious about his sketching but were eventually won over by his skill.  He finally arrived at Petra and made the long climb up above the city to the monastery of Ed Deir, which in the first century AD was a Nabatean temple.   Frederic Church completed his beautiful oil and graphite painting entitled Ed Dier, Petra, Jordan,   Unbelievable at it may sound but Church completed the work in just one sitting, in 1868.

Königsee by Frederic Church (1868)
Königsee by Frederic Church (1868)

From the Holy Land, Frederic Church returned to Europe visiting Rome and Athens and also the Bavarian Alpine region, Switzerland and Austria which had always been a popular venue for landscape painters.  Church was drawn to this area as he was always searching for beautiful vistas to paint.   He liked the area as he believed there was a marked similarity between the geography of the area and that of the rugged American landscapes which he knew so well.  In July 1868 he visited the Königsee, the beautiful Upper Bavarian lake which nestles amongst steep-sided cliffs.  Sheltered from the weather,  the surface of the lake is often mirror-like reflecting the surrounding mountains.   He completed a beautiful work entitled Königsee that month and it is a poignant reminder to me of the times I have visited the lake and stood in awe before it, mesmerised by its beauty.

South West Facade of Olana by Frederic Church (1870)
South West Facade of Olana
A watercolour by Frederic Church (1870)

Frederic Church in 1867 was becoming homesick and wanted to return to America and his country estate.  Since he bought it seven years earlier he had been constantly planning the landscape design for the land and the architectural design for a large house on the top of the hill.  Richard Morris Hunt, his architect, had submitted plans for a large French chateau-style house and Church had liked the idea and agreed to the design.   However having returned from his tour of the Levant and studied the architecture of the area, he changed his mind.  He decided to discharge Hunt and take on the British-born American architect and landscape designer Calvert Vaux who was based in Manhattan and had in 1858, along with Frank Law Olmstead had won a design competition to improve and expand New York’s Central Park.

Olana Historic Site
Olana Historic Site

Frederic Church and Vaux worked on the plans for the design of the house which was to be the centrepiece of  Church’s estate, which he and his wife Isabel named Olana after a fortress-treasure house in ancient Persia which like Church’s estate also overlooked a river valley.  The building project was completed in 1872.

As Church got older he spent more and more time on his farm and concentrated his time running the estate.  From the 1870’s onwards Church suffered badly from rheumatoid arthritis which badly affected his right arm curtailing much of his art work although he did teach himself to paint with his left hand.  Frederic Church died in 1900, aged 74 and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.

Forest Pool by Frederic Church (1860)
Forest Pool by Frederic Church (1860)

I will finish this blog with a look at the painting by Frederic Church, which most impressed me at the exhibition.  It is entitled Forest Pool and was completed by Frederic Church around 1860.  It was almost the first work I came across as I entered the exhibition room and I had to keep coming back to it in order to savour its beauty.   I stood before it and could not believe the quality of the painting.  Such beautifully drawn details.  Such beautiful colour and tones.  The work was a close-up view of a dense forest and a small forest pool.   Every square inch of the work is covered in rich shades of green and brown and although it was a study for a larger painting, it seems as if it is a finished work.  The artist has delightfully depicted the tranquillity of the forest scene with the calm surface of the pond offering up reflections of the trees and their branches and spots of sunlight.  If you look closely at the upper middle part of the composition you will just be able to make out a hint of blue sky which is otherwise blocked by the screen of trees.

The Frederic Church exhibition at the National Gallery is worth going to see for this painting alone.

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Frederic Edwin Church, Part 1

Last weekend I spent a two day break in London attending the christening of my grandson and pottering around a couple of galleries visiting their current exhibitions.   I had tickets for the Boccacio exhibition at the National Gallery and whilst there I decided to call in to their small but excellent Frederic Church exhibition, Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch, which is running until April 28th.   It was a veritable gem of a show and as the publicity stated,

 “…[ it was an invitation to] step into a world of wild natural phenomena with the landscape oil sketches of celebrated American landscape painter, Frederic Church…

 It is a free-to-enter exhibition and one you should try and visit.   I want to dedicate the next two blogs to the nineteenth century American painter Frederic Church, and look at some of his paintings, some of which were at the exhibition.  Church was a master of the plein-air oil sketch and I ask you to accompany me on a journey looking at his life and sampling some of his exquisite artistic gems.

Frederic Church was born in Hartford, the state capital of Connecticut, in May 1826.  He came from a privileged background.  His father, Joseph, who came from a very prosperous family, was a jeweller, silversmith and a Hartford insurance adjuster and the Church household lived an affluent lifestyle.  Frederic, who was brought up in a devout Protestant Congregationalist household, showed a propensity for art whilst at school and through a family neighbour, Daniel Wadsworth, was fortunate enough to be introduced to Thomas Cole, the English-born American landscape artist, who is regarded as the founder of the Hudson River School.  Thomas Cole, who up until then had never taken a pupil under his wing, agreed to take Frederic on as his pupil.   Frederic studied under Thomas Cole in his Catskill studio between 1844 and 1846 during which time he and his tutor would go off on painting trips to the Catskill Mountains and the Berkshires, a highland region in western Massachusetts, west of the Connecticut and lower Westfield Rivers .

Hooker and Company journeying through the Wilderness in 1636  from Plymouth to Hartford by Frederic Church (1846)
Hooker and Company journeying through the Wilderness in 1636 from Plymouth to Hartford
by Frederic Church (1846)

Frederic flourished under Cole’s guidance and, within a year, he had his painting, a scene from early New England history, Hooker and Company journeying through the Wilderness in 1636 from Plymouth to Hartford shown at New York’s National Academy of Design annual exhibition.  The scene recounts the June 1636 journey made by the prominent Puritan religious leader, Reverend Thomas Hooker as he left the Boston area with one hundred men, women, and children and set out for the Connecticut valley. The group traveled over one hundred miles through the wilderness and reached their destination in early July. Many members of the Hooker party settled in Hartford, while some located to nearby Wethersfield and Windsor, and others traveled north and settled Springfield, Massachusetts.    It was through this painting that Church combined his love for ancient landscapes with an acknowledgement of his cultural origins.  The following year Church was elected as the youngest Associate of the National Academy of Design and was promoted to Academician the following year.  That year he sold his first major oil painting to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, an art museum which had been founded by Daniel Wadsworth.

 After completing his apprenticeship with Cole, Frederic Church moved to New York and set up his own studio in a space which he rented in the Art-Union Building, which was at the centre of the city’s art world, and he began to teach art.   During the spring and autumn months he would leave the city and set out on painting trips throughout New England, particularly Vermont.  Over the months he would build up a large collection of sketches of the beautiful scenery he witnessed, which he would then bring back to his New York studio and during the dark and cold months of winter he would convert them into beautiful landscape paintings.    His landscape artistry was much admired and his landscape works featuring New York and New England vistas sold well.  Frederic Church’s landscape paintings differed from the moral and religious allegorical ones which had been the hallmark of his tutor, Thomas Cole’s landscape works,  for Church wanted to concentrate on the true beauty of nature.  His depictions of storms, sunsets and waterfalls in the Catskill Mountains encapsulated the beauty and spirituality of the American wilderness.  It could well be the case that Frederic Church had read the words of the great English art critic John Ruskin who laid out his ideas of what a young artist should seek to achieve in their landscape works.  Ruskin wrote:

 “…For young artists nothing ought to be tolerated but simple bona fide imitation of nature….. Their duty is neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalize; but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God…”

Niagara by Frederic Church (1857)
Niagara by Frederic Church (1857)

During a two year period, 1854 to 1856, Frederic Church travelled extensively visiting Nova Scotia, and journeying throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and it was around this time that he visited the Niagara Falls.   The Falls, by this time, had become a great tourist attraction and a favourite destination for artists.  Whilst at the Falls he completed a number of oil sketches which he would utilise when he painted his large-scale works of the Falls in 1857 and 1867.   Frederic Church’s great breakthrough came when, in 1857, he exhibited his painting Niagara It was a large work measuring 107cms x 230cms (see My Daily Art Display Sept 9th 2011) and it visually stunned all who saw it.   Without doubt, the late 1850’s were the high point of Church’s career.  Artistic triumph followed artistic triumph.

 Frederic Church had, like many others,  become fascinated with the translated writings of the celebrated Prussian naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, which were based on his five-year expedition in the New World at the start of the nineteenth century.  It was in one of his works, Kosmos  that Von Humboldt implored artists to travel and paint equatorial South America.   In 1853, along with his friend, the young entrepreneur Cyrus West Field, who had financed the trip, Church set off on the first of two expeditions following Humboldt’s footsteps, chiefly in Colombia;  the second trip, in 1857, in company with the American Creole landscape painter, Louis Remy Mignot.   Together, the artists travelled from Panama to Ecuador, where they spent 10 weeks painting village and mountain scenes.

The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Church (1859)
The Heart of the Andes by Frederic Church (1859)

From his trips to South and Central America, Frederic Church amassed a large collection of sketches from which, on his return home, he completed large and spectacular oil paintings.  One of these works was his ten-foot wide work entitled The Heart of the Andes which he completed in 1859.   This elaborate and highly structured painting was his most ambitious work.  In this painting Church managed to depict the variety of earthly life as seen by the lush green foreground.   The painting took pride of place in a New York exhibition, housed in an elaborate window-like frame and illuminated in a darkened room by concealed skylights.  Can you just imagine what nineteenth century viewers made of this extraordinary painting exhibited in such an extraordinary setting?   People thronged to see the painting and it was estimated that more than twelve thousand people visited the exhibition in three weeks and were happy to part with a quarter each to see it.  For that admission fee, the public were provided with opera glasses so that they could examine the painting in detail.  The painting was then shipped to England where once again people flocked to see it.  Church eventually sold it for $10,000, at that time the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist.

Iceberg Flotante by Frederic Church (1859)
Iceberg Flotante by Frederic Church (1859)

In 1859 Church took a voyage north along the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador in search of icebergs.  On this trip he was accompanied by the Reverend Louis L. Noble, an author who was to write about their trip together in his 1861 book, After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Around Newfoundland.  During their voyage of discovery Frederic Church and Noble would hire a boat to take them up close to these awe-inspiring floating icebergs to allow Church to sketch these remarkable and majestic floating white giants.  Frederic Church managed to capture the breath-taking beauty of these white giants in a number of his paintings, one of which was his work entitled Iceberg Flotante which he completed in 1859

The Icebergs by Frederic Church (1861)
The Icebergs by Frederic Church (1861)

I particularly like his 1861 painting entitled The Icebergs, in the foreground of which we see a broken masthead lying cross-like on the ice.  Not only is this a beautiful landscape work but it is a kind of historical painting as the inclusion of the masthead is a reference to the tragic loss of Sir John Franklin’s doomed British expedition party which had been attempting to cross the last un-navigated section of the North-West Passage in 1847.  Sadly, the two ships of the expedition became icebound in Victoria Strait, close to King William Island in the Canadian Arctic.  Despite the British Admiralty’s sending numerous search parties to find the ships, the entire expedition party, including Franklin himself and his 128 men, was lost.

……………………………………………….to be continued in my next blog.

Niagara by Frederic Edwin Church

Niagara by Frederic Church (1857)

My Daily Art Display for today returns to a painting by an American artist and another member of the Hudson River School, which was a mid-19th century American art movement personified by a group of landscape painters whose artistic vision was influenced by the 18th century European Romanticism movement.   The paintings for which the group is named depict the Hudson River Valley and the area around the Catskill, Adirondack and the White Mountain ranges.  The artist is Frederic Edwin Church.

Frederic Church was born in Hartford Connecticut in 1826.  His father, Joseph, was a silversmith and watchmaker and through his success and that of his father who had owned a paper mill, the Church household lived a prosperous lifestyle.  Frederic studied art at school and through a family neighbour, Daniel Wadsworth, was fortunate enough to be introduced to Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, who agreed to take Frederic on as his pupil.   Church thrived under Cole’s tutelage and within a year, he had some of his paintings shown in the National Academy of Design annual exhibition.  The following year, 1848, Church was elected as the youngest Associate of the National Academy of Design and was promoted to Academician the following year.  That year he sold his first major oil painting to the Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, which had been founded by Wadsworth.

In 1848 he went to live in New York and began to teach art.  In his spare time in spring and autumn he would travel throughout New York and New England, particularly Vermont, all the time sketching the beautiful scenery whilst during the winter months he would return to New York City and his home and convert his numerous sketches into a number of landscape paintings, all of which sold well.   Church and a friend set forth on an adventurous trip through Central America and Ecuador. From this trip, Church’s first finished South American pictures, shown to great acclaim in 1855, transformed his career.   For the next decade he devoted a great part of his attention to those subjects, producing a celebrated series that became the basis of his ensuing international fame.   During a two year period, 1854 to 1856, he travelled extensively visiting Nova Scotia, and journeying throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and it was around this time that he visited the Niagara Falls.   The late 1850’s were the high point of Church’s career, artistic triumph followed artistic triumph.   In 1857 he made another trip to Ecuador and also took a voyage to Newfoundland and Labrador.  In 1860, Church bought some farmland at Hudson, New York, and married Isabel Carnes, whom he had met during the exhibition of his paintings.   He and his wife lead a settled and happy life and he spent most of his time tending to his farm but his happiness was shattered in 1865 when both his young children contracted diphtheria and died.  However, with the birth of Frederic junior in 1866, Church and his wife began a new family that was eventually to number four children.

At the end of 1867, Frederic Church and his family embarked on a long trip to Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and Greece that was to last eighteen months and was to lead to several important paintings. As Church got older he spent more and more time on his farm and farming.  From the 1870’s onwards Church suffered badly from rheumatoid arthritis and it badly affected his right arm which curtailed much of his art work although he did teach himself to paint with his left hand.  Frederic Church died in 1900, aged 74 and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.

Today’s painting by Frederic Church entitled Niagara is one of four he painted of this waterfall.  This one was painted in 1857 and guaranteed for him, still a young man of thirty-one, the role of America’s most famous painter.   It is probably the most famous painting of it ever made.  During the 19th century, American artists flocked to the Falls to paint the various views of it.  The Falls were looked upon as the nation’s greatest natural wonder.   This picture was painted from the Canadian shore, a short distance above Table Rock, and includes the sweep of the Horseshoe Fall and the edge of Goat Island in a notable depiction of water and light. The time is towards evening.   We can see an amazing amount of detail in every stage of the water’s journey as it cascades downwards.  Look at how Church has incorporated an optical flourish of the rainbow against the falling waters.

The painting was introduced to the American public shortly after its completion, as a one-painting exhibition at the commercial gallery of Williams, Stevens, and Williams in New York City.   People flocked to see the work and were willing to pay 25 cents each to view the monumental canvas, which measured 109cms x 230cms and sometimes they would use opera glasses or other optical aids to augment the experience.   With their 25 cents admission fee the people would also receive a pamphlet that reprinted contemporary critics’ praise of Church’s picture and offered exhibition-goers the opportunity to purchase a print of the work.   Within a fortnight of the exhibition’s opening more than a hundred thousand people had paid to see it.  Art critics lavished praise on the work describing it as “the finest oil picture ever painted on this side of the Atlantic.”    After this success in New York the painting was taken to a number of American cities before it made two tours of Britain and was exhibited at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris where it won a prize

The painting now hangs in the The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC