For his spectacular and panoramic paintings of the wilderness of North and South America, Frederic Edwin Church was a dominant figure in the second generation of the Hudson River School. His canvases celebrated the drama of the American frontier and expressed the expansionist and optimistic outlook of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, Church was the son of a wealthy businessman. He received his early art training from local painters Benjamin Hutchins Coe and Alexander Hamilton Emmons. In 1844, with the helpof the art patron Daniel Wadsworth, he became the first pupil of the famous Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole
. While studying at Cole’s studio in Catskill, New York, Church absorbed his teacher’s methods of sketching and became a proponent of his epic style of painting. Upon completing two years of training, Church moved to New York, where he established a studio in the Art-Union building.
Church was successful in New York. In 1848, he became one of the youngest artists to be elected to the status of academician at the National Academy of Design, and he was soon training pupils of his own, including Jervis McEntee and William James Stillman. In the subsequent period, Church emulated Cole’s art, painting large-scale landscapes of the Hudson River Valley and of New England. Influenced by the writings of English theorist John Ruskin
, he began to paint in a more precise manner, focusing on specific effects of weather and atmosphere. He was also inspired by the writings of Alexander von Humboldt, a German naturalist-explorer.
Church gradually began to take a more scientific approach to nature, using sketches he had created in the outdoors in the preparation of his canvases. In 1853, he became the first American artist to visit South America. Accompanying Cyrus Field, who later gained renown for his participation in the transatlantic cable project, Church followed Humboldt’s 1802 route from Colombia to Ecuador. Along the way, Church drew from nature, producing the drawings that became the basis for important canvases depicting exotic subjects such as The Cordilleras: Sunrise
(1855; Private Collection).
When his works received high praise, Church set off on a second expedition in 1857. On this sojourn, he traveled to Ecuador with the landscape painter Louis Rémy Mignot. It was on this trip that he was able to concentrate on the scenery of the Andes, and he filled diaries and sketchbooks with records of the vegetation and the countryside. Characterized by vast vistas and atmospheric detail, the works that resulted from this sojourn demonstrate Church’s unique approach. Among the great triumphs of the artist’s career was Heart of the Andes
(1859; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), in which Church captured the essence of the tropics. Another significant product of this period in the artist’s career was Niagara
(1857; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), which established Church as the leading interpreter of theAmerican spirit.
During the 1860s, Church continued to travel, seeking subject matter for his paintings. He continued to produce visions of the tropics such as Twilight in the Wilderness
(1860; Cleveland Museum of Art) and Cotopaxi (1862; The Detroit Institute of Arts) until 1867, when he took a year and a half trip to Europe and the Middle East. He first spent six months in London and Paris, and then continued on to Alexandria, Beirut, Constantinople, Baalbeck, Petra, and Jerusalem. Due to his fascination with ancient civilizations, he also visited Naples, Paestum, and Greece. On his return, he stopped in London, in order to study the works of Turner
. The results of this trip were numerous oil sketches and drawings that he used for a series of paintings including The Parthenon
(1871; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives
(1870; The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri).
By 1880, Church’s painting activity was curtailed due to ill health, and in 1883, rheumatism crippled his right arm and hand. In 1890, he settled at Olana, his grand villa near Hudson, New York, which had been designed for him in the Persian and Moorish styles by the architect Calvert Vaux in 1870. The house, which is preserved as a museum today, reflected Church’s eclectic interests and his travels, including exotic furnishings and decorative objects. The artist adorned the walls with works by the Old Masters, especially landscapes by Claude Lorrain
and Salvator Rosa
. Although he spent the winters of his last years in Mexico, Church spent most of the final phase of his life at Olana. He died in New York City.
Church’s works may be found in fine private and public collections throughout the United States including the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Cincinnati Art Museum; the Cleveland Museum of Art; the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; the Delaware Museum of Art, Wilmington; the Detroit Institute of Arts; the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica, New York; the National Academy of Design, New York; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.; the National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri; the New-York Historical Society; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, Virginia; the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, Hagerstown, Maryland; and Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.- LNPSource:
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