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A Country Home

Photo: Paul Macapia

A Country Home

1854

Frederic Edwin Church

born Hartford, Connecticut,1826; died New York City,1900

A Country Home was one of the most acclaimed paintings of Frederic Church's early career. Why? What inspired Church to paint A Country Home? What might the subject have meant to the artist, a young painter from Hartford, Connecticut, newly established on the art scene in New York in the early 1850s when he conceived of this picture? And what made this painting so appealing to the public at that time? To learn more about the artist's inspiration and the appreciation that viewers have had for this painting in the nineteenth century and today, follow the paths of inquiry that we offer here.

Oil on canvas
32 x 51 in. (81.3 x 129.5 cm.)
Gift of Anna Robeson Baker Carmichael
65.80
Provenance: General Joseph Gardner Swift (1783-1865), Geneva, New York; to his son-in-law Peter Richards, Jr. (1811-1892), Brooklyn and Geneva, New York, by 1862-1892; bequeathed to his daughter, Margaret W. Richards (died 1923), Geneva. New York; to her grand niece, Anna Robeson Baker (Mrs. Paul C. Carmichael, 1900-1975), Seattle, 1926-1965; gift to Seattle Art Museum, 1965
Photo: Paul Macapia
location
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

The hand of man generally improves a landscape.  The earth has been given to him, and his presence in Eden is natural.  He gives life and spirit to the garden.

The Home Book of the Picturesque, 1851

What Inspired A Country Home?

To understand the genesis of Frederic Church's painting A Country Home and the appeal of this subject to Church and his audience, we need to look at the historical events surrounding its creation and its place in the development of Church's art.
Photo: Paul Macapia

The Painting and the Public

Photo: Paul Macapia
A Country Home was unveiled to the public in April 1854, at the popular annual exhibition of New York's National Academy of Design, the most important showcase for contemporary artists at that time. The National Academy of Design, founded in 1826, was the first institution in the United States established and managed by professional artists. It was an art school and an exhibition space: "There shall be an annual exhibition of works of living artists," the academy's by-laws stated. The academy further stipulated that an artist's submission for exhibition could not be a work of art that had been exhibited at any other academy annual. Each yearly show was guaranteed to consist of new works by a wide range of artists. The academy shows were much anticipated, and an eager audience turned out in great numbers to see each exhibition's new offerings. Critics lavished attention on the annual exhibitions. Their voluminous descriptions, written in an age before photography enabled newspapers and magazines to illustrate works of art for readers, are important sources of information about individual works of art and the appreciation of these paintings in their time.
Photo: Paul Macapia
General Joseph Gardner Swift was the first owner of A Country Home. He probably bought the painting after admiring it in the 1854 exhibition of the National Academy of Design. Swift's estate records show that he was not exactly an art collector—he possessed only a very few family portraits in addition to the Church canvas. We can only speculate about the appeal that this particular picture had for him.

In 1854, Swift was living as a country gentleman in upstate New York, in the rural town of Geneva, in a landscape much like the one Church painted. Perhaps the subject of A Country Home represented to Swift something of his own circumstance, living quietly along the shore of Lake Geneva. It is also possible that Swift bought the painting on the advice of his good friend, painter Daniel Huntington, who as president of the National Academy of Design must have recognized Church as a rare and rising young talent.

The Evolution of A Country Home

Photo: Paul Macapia
Thomas Cole's sudden death in February 1848 stunned the art world. The intensity of Church's feeling at the loss of his mentor can be measured in the extraordinary work that occupied him in the weeks immediately following Cole's death. By April 1848, Church had completed a poignant, richly detailed landscape that was a symbolic memorial to Cole.

This work was not to be his only tribute. As Church continued to honor Cole's legacy in his art, all that he had admired in his teacher and friend came forth in his next paintings, each an exquisitely rendered variation on a theme Cole had popularized, especially with his painting The Hunter's Return. In developing a subject that he and others associated closely with Cole, Church paid homage to his mentor while gaining recognition as Cole's most talented and worthy successor.

Click on the images below to continue the story.
Photo: Paul Macapia
The recent discovery of this long-lost canvas from 1849 allows us to see how Church began to develop the "home-in-the-wilderness" theme in the months following the death of his teacher and mentor, Thomas Cole, in February 1848.

The view is composed of vignettes that Church sketched near Pittsford, Vermont, on his summertime rambles in 1848. The scene is not specifically a tribute to country life, however. The setting is almost incidental to the real subject—the magnificent sunset and its glistening effect on the wet landscape. The painting is a sky study. Church even chose to title it Evening After a Storm, disassociating it from any particular place and focusing our attention on the passing clouds. The stunning effect was described in 1849 as that of "a veil lifting to reveal the theatrical display of light and shadow patterns playing before us through the landscape below."
Photo: Paul Macapia
About the time he created Evening After a Storm, Church conceived of the painting now known only by a descriptive title, New England Landscape. This painting is a very different interpretation of the same rural Vermont landscape. It is not a dramatic sunset sky study. It is a highly detailed, idyllic scene of picnickers on a millpond, idling on a late-summer afternoon. The scene is bathed in brilliant light. This painting shows that Church's interest extended to every element of the greatly varied setting.

What was it about rural scenery that Church and his enthusiastic audience found so compelling? The settled landscapes of old New England were the first expressions of a population's pioneer spirit. They offered a congenial view of America as a land of enduring peace and plenty, of self-reliant country folk piously devoted to nature. "The hand of man generally improves a landscape," one observer declared in 1851, writing in the popular magazine The Home Book of the Picturesque. "The earth has been given to him, and his presence in Eden is natural; he gives life and spirit to the garden."
Photo: Paul Macapia
The subject of A Country Home clearly held enduring personal meaning for Church, and this particular painting proved to be critical to his early success. The painting was first exhibited in the same year that Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) published Walden; or, Life in the Woods, the account of his months of seclusion in a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. The sentiments that Church and Thoreau expressed in their respective celebrations of the solitary life were conveyed as well by other thoughtful artists and writers in this period as they became more aware of the implications of the country's rapid urban and industrial growth.

A Country Home would be the last picture in which Church so lovingly created the calm and perfectly harmonious world of rural New England. Why did Church turn away from a theme that had dominated his painting for some five years—a theme that had established his reputation and that resonated with something fundamental in his character?
Photo: Paul Macapia
Having traveled to South America in the summer of 1853, Church must have begun to recognize the conceptual limitations of New England scenery and was attracted by the lure of new realms. The fact that in 1854, a writer had harshly criticized the repetition that he felt now characterized Church's work could have further motivated the artist to explore fresh subjects. In South America, Church had observed more exotic splendors of nature, and he had studied them with a naturalist's eye. Strangeness in nature was now as appealing to him as the familiar landscape had been.
Photo: Paul Macapia
In 1860, when Church returned again to painting New England scenery, it was not with the same sense of pleasure and optimism that are so obvious in his picturesque views of the country home. Now he seemed to paint with a sense of paradise lost. His subjects are the dark and desolate wilderness. Do these paintings of the 1860s reflect the mood of an artist whose nation was wracked by civil war? Pictures of America as an enduring land of peace and plenty must have seemed out of sync with those turbulent years.

Media

The American Landscape's "Quieter Spirit" (ePublication)

Resources

Exhibition HistoryNew York, New York, National Academy of Design, Twenty-Ninth Annual Exhibition, Mar. 22-Apr. 25, 1854. Cat. no. 64 [as A Country Home, no owner given].

New York, New York, Artists' Fund Society of New York, Gallery of Fine Art Institute, Third Annual Exhibition, Oct. 1862. Cat. no. 201 [as Country Home, owned by P. Richards, Jr.].

Bellevue, Washington, Bellevue Art Museum, 17th, 18th, 19th Century Western Art: An Exhibit of Selected Portions from the Collections of the Seattle Art Museum, Oct. 30-Nov. 24, 1975. No. cat. no. [as Landscape].

New York, Coe Kerr Gallery, American Luminism, Oct. 25-Nov. 25, 1978. Text by William H. Gerdts. Cat. no. 2 [as Landscape].

Fort Worth, Texas, Amon Carter Museum, The Early Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church, 1845-1854, Mar. 9-Apr. 29, 1984. Text by Franklin Kelly and Gerald L. Carr. Cat. no. 17. pp. 122, 125-127, reproduced p. 125 and plate 8.

Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Frederic Edwin Church. Oct. 8, 1989-Jan. 28, 1990. Text by Franklin Kelly, et al. Cat. no. 19, pp. 48, 161, 165, 201, reproduced p. 79.

Vienna, Austria, Osterreichische Galerie Belvedere, America: The New World in 19th-century Painting, Mar. 17- June 20, 1999. Text ed. Stephen Koja. Cat. no. 39, p. 87, reproduced.

Seattle, Seattle Art Museum, The American Landscape's 'Quieter Spirit': Early Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church, June 25-Oct. 16, 2005. Text by Patricia Junker. No cat. no., pp. 3, 18-21, reproduced fig. 1.





Published References"The Fine Arts. Exhibition of the National Academy. (Second Article)." New-York Daily Tribune, Saturday, Apr. 22, 1854: p. 6.

"Academy of Design. (Seventh Article)." New York Evening Mirror, Apr. 18, 1854.

"Fine Arts. National Academy of Design." The Albion 13, no. 15 (Apr.15, 1854): p. 177.

"Editorial Notes---Fine Arts, The National Academy." Putnam's Monthly 3, no. 17 (May 1854): p. 567.

[Clark, Lewis Gaylord]. "Editor's Table [review of the NAD exhibition]." The Knickerbocker 43, no. 5 (May 1854): p. 540.

[Curtis, George W]. "Editor's Easy Chair [review of NAD exhibition]." Harper's New Monthly Magazine 8, no. 48 (May 1854): p. 846.

Huntington, David C. Frederic Edwin Church. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1966; p. 30. [Owner incorrectly given as Mrs. Arthur Delafield Smith, Arlington, Virginia].

Selected Works: Seattle Art Museum. Seattle, Washington: Seattle Art Museum, 1991; p. 110, reproduced.

Kelly, Franklin. Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape. Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1988; pp. 75-77, 78. 81, reproduced p. 50, pl. 8.

Mathes, Charles. Treasures of American Museums. New York: Mallard Press, 1991; p. 237, fig. 2.

Cooper, James. Knights of the Brush: The Hudson River School and the Moral Landscape. New York: Hudson Hills Press, 2000; p. 6, repro.

Carr, Gerald L. "Home by the Lake." In American Paintings XII, edited by Bruce Weber, p. 21. New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 2005.

Ledes, Alison Eckardt. "Church in Sharp Focus." The Magazine Antiques (September 2005): pp. 20-22, reproduced p. 20.

Junker, Patricia. "The American Landscape's 'Quieter Spirit': Early Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church." SAMconnects [magazine of the Seattle Art Museum] 19, no. 4 (Fall 2005): 14-15, reproduced fig. 1.

Hackett, Regina. "SAM's New Territory: 'Quieter Spirit' Speaks Volumes about American Art's Future at Museum." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 26, 2005: section E, pp. 1, 3.

1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. London: Quintet Publishing Limited, 2006; p. 415.

Ishikawa, Chiyo et al. Seattle Art Museum Downtown. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 2007; reproduced p. 56.

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures. London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007; p. 24, reproduced.

Junker, Patricia. "A Sense of Place: American Art and the Seattle Art Museum." The Magazine Antiques (November 2008): p. 110, fig. 3, p. 110.

Cartwright, Derrick. "Introduction." In Albert Bierstadt, Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast: A Superb Vision of Dreamland, by Patricia Junker. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press, 2011; p. 7, reproduced.

[Carr, Gerald]. "Frederic Edwin Church; A New England Lake," entry in Christie's, New York, American Art, November 21, 2017, lot 44, pp. 89, reproduced.