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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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