So far in this series the majority of my explorers and adventurers have been Europeans, many of whom have travelled to lands which Europeans ‘discovered’ relatively recently. As Europeans populated the Americas, in particular, those new Americans explored their own continent, and I turn now to feature some of the great American artists who painted their adopted land during expeditions of various kinds.
Among these founding masters of American painting is Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), one of the world’s great nineteenth century landscape painters, who was central to the Hudson River School. As the only pupil of Thomas Cole, who founded the School, Church has a pivotal place in the history of American painting.
His career started at the time of the Barbizon School, and continued into the height of Impressionism in France, and its arrival in North America. Unlike those, and subsequent US landscape painters, Church was a devout realist (although usually of composite scenes) who produced huge canvases with meticulous, almost obsessive, detail. He was thus a rival to his contemporary, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), who worked largely within his unchallenged territory to the west of the Mississippi.
Church was a precocious artist, and by the time he started his training with Cole in 1844 he seems to have been an excellent draftsman and a competent landscape painter. During his two years with Cole, the pair travelled around New England and New York. Church sold his first painting to his neighbour Daniel Wadsworth, who founded the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, CT.
From these early days, Church’s working methods were traditional, and similar to those of John Constable. He drew in pencil and sketched in oils in front of his motif, then assembled those into highly detailed and finished oil paintings in his studio. Church was an obsessive sketcher in oils, and thousands of his drawings and oil sketches survive in collections such as those of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York.
Church’s early landscape painting of West Rock, New Haven (1849) is a good example of his attention to detail in finished paintings. As shown in the detail below, its foreground features three figures making hay, which they’re stacking onto carts drawn by oxen. Down at the river bank, a dog is enjoying a paddle. Just peeking proud of the distant treetops is the white tip of a church spire.
He had settled in New York by 1850, and from then went on trips most summers to the wilds of Maine to paint en plein air in oils. He made this rather sparse view of Mt. Desert Island, Maine Coast in oils on paper in 1850.
The following year, Church painting this rich twilight seascape of a Beacon, off Mount Desert Island (1851). From its size and canvas support, this was intended as a finished work rather than a study.
Schoodic Peninsula from Mount Desert at Sunrise (1850–55) is one of the oil sketches which he made during a summer visit to Maine during this period.
Eagle Lake Viewed from Cadillac Mountain, Mount Desert Island, Maine (1850–60) is another oil sketch featuring a considerably more complex motif. Cadillac Mountain is relatively low, at 466 metres (1,530 feet), but the highest point of Mount Desert Island, so affords such spectacular views.
In 1852, Church read Alexander von Humboldt’s account of his travels in central America, and decided to rise to Humboldt’s challenge to depict the ‘physiognomy’ of the Andes mountains. The following year he travelled to Columbia and Ecuador with the businessman Cyrus West Field, who bankrolled their trip in the hope that he could use Church’s paintings to promote his own local business ventures. They based themselves in Quito, travelling from there to awe-inspiring views of mountains and volcanoes.
Church painted this view of what’s thought to be Cayambe in Ecuador in August or September 1853. This isn’t an oil sketch, though, but was made in pencil and gouache.
On his return to his studio in New York, Church turned those hundreds of sketches and drawings into larger finished paintings, in this case one of his many views of Cotopaxi (1855) in Ecuador. As was conventional at the time, these are highly finished, with no evidence of brushwork and a smooth paint surface.
His other versions of this motif weren’t as peaceful: that of 1862, commissioned by James Lenox, shows rugged waterfalls in the foreground, a barren rocky plain, and the volcano itself ejecting a high plume of smoke and ash. All this is lit by a blood-red sun, sitting low in the sky. This was to enable Church’s painting to serve as a pendant to one of Lenox’s other paintings, Turner’s dramatic Staffa, Fingal’s Cave (1832).
Church was among the many landscape painters who visited Niagara (1857). Jennifer Raab has set this painting in its historical context, at a time when secession of Southern states seemed imminent. The Niagara Falls became associated with union and the unity of its details.
He returned to central America in 1857 with the artist Louis Rémy Mignot and added hundreds more drawings and sketches to his collection.
Cross in the Wilderness, which he painted later that year, is one of the earlier works to result from his second visit. This wilderness is unpopulated, devoid of figures or other signs of human presence. It was another two years before Church painted his masterpiece which drew the crowds and established his popularity.
Raab, Jennifer (2015) Frederic Church, The Art and Science of Detail, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 20837 5.