Frederic Edwin Church

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpbh-02727

Frederic Edwin Church

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

Church, Frederic Edwin (born Hartford, CT, 4 May 1826; died New York, 7 April 1900). American painter. . . . The son of a wealthy and prominent businessman, he studied briefly in Hartford with two local artists, Alexander Hamilton Emmons (1816-84) and Benjamin Hutchins Coe (1799-1883). Thanks to the influence of the Hartford patron DANIEL WADSWORTH, in 1844 he became the first pupil accepted by Thomas Cole. . . . Church began exhibiting works in New York at the National Academy of Design and American Art-Union while he was still under Cole's instruction. . . . After settling in New York in 1847, Church followed a routine of sketching in oil and pencil during summer trips in New York State and New England and painting finished pictures in his studio during the autumn and winter. . . . In the summer of 1850 Church made his first visit to Maine, beginning a lifelong association with that state. . . . About this same time he started to read the Cosmos (1845-62) by the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), paying particular attention to the chapter on landscape painting and its relationship to modern science. He began to produce compositions that fused panoramic scope with intricate, scientifically correct detail, such as New England Scenery (1851; Springfield, MA, Smith A. Mus. [sic: George Walter Vincent Smith Museum]. . . . Humboldt's description of the tropics of South America as a subject worthy of a great painter inspired Church to travel there in the spring of 1853. He returned to New York with numerous pencil drawings and oil sketches of South American scenery. The first finished pictures based on these studies, such as La Magdalena (1854; New York, N. Acad. Des.), appeared in the spring of 1855 at the National Academy, where they caused a sensation. Even more successful was the Andes of Ecuador (1855; Winston-Salem, NC, Reynolda House), a sweeping view across miles of mountainous landscape animated by a luminous atmosphere.

In 1857 Church unveiled Niagara (1857; Washington, DC, Corcoran Gall. A.). . . the work that made him the most famous painter in America. . . . Exhibited by itself in America and England between 1857 and 1859, Niagara was seen and admired by thousands. In spring 1857 Church returned to South America to gather material for a new series of major tropical landscapes. The first to appear was his masterpiece, the Heart of the Andes (1859; New York, Met.), which was displayed in the Tenth Street Studio Building in a darkened room with carefully controlled lighting. Surrounded by moulding designed to resemble a window-frame, the painting overwhelmed contemporaries with its intricately painted foreground of tropical plants and its breathtaking vistas along lines leading to several vanishing points in the mountainous distance. Like Niagara, the Heart of the Andes toured cities in the USA and England, receiving enthusiastic critical and popular acclaim. . . .

Church continued to travel widely, visiting Jamaica in 1865 and Europe and the Near East in 1867-9. On the journey home, in June 1869, he took advantage of a brief stay in London to study works by Turner. Although a number of important works by Church subsequently appeared in the late 1860s and 1870s, only a few, such as Jerusalem (1870; Kansas City, MO, Nelson-Atkins Mus. A.), approached the power of his earlier works. . . .

Church spent most of the last years of his life at Olana, the house he built on a hill overlooking the Hudson River, just across from Catskill, NY. From there he made numerous trips in the last decades of his life, especially to Maine and Mexico. Although few finished works of note date from these years, Church did paint dozens of superb oil sketches, often of the sky seen from Olana. These sketches, now in Olana and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum of Design in New York, are among his most beautiful creations. Olana survives with many of its original furnishings intact. It contains a collection of Church's works in all media, as well as an important archive of documentary material.

--Franklin Kelly, in Encyclopedia of American Art before 1914. Ed. Jane Turner. Grove Library of World Art. London: Macmillan Reference Limited, 2000. New York: Grove's Dictionaries, Inc., 2000, 96-98.

  • oil painting
  • American
  • oil painting

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