The splendid show American Sublime, which originated at London’s Tate Museum and will travel from summer in Philadelphia to autumn in Minneapolis, raises, with its article-free title, the question, Why does one hear often of the American Sublime but never of, say, the French or Chinese Sublime? The very word, from Latin meaning “under the lintel”—i.e., as high as one can go in a constructed opening, just under the upper limit—is a roomy and aspiring one, with precise senses in chemistry and psychiatry having to do with the vaporization of solids and the taming of instinctual desires. In philosophy, too, it is subject to close definition, we learn from Andrew Wilton’s authoritative catalog essay “The Sublime in the Old World and the New.” Critical minds of the eighteenth century distinguished the Sublime from the merely Beautiful: “Addison, for instance, found it natural to refer to the Sublime of Homer and the Beautiful of Virgil.” The Alps, one supposes, were sublime and the verdant landscapes of England’s home counties merely beautiful.
Edmund Burke, in 1757, put the distinction on a firm footing in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. In Wilton’s paraphrase, Burke relegated the Beautiful to our human function of “generation,” or sex: “In a male-dominated society, beauty is governed by what men find desirable in women: smoothness, gentleness, softness and so on.” Against this startlingly genderized category (do women then find hardness and roughness beautiful or, imitating men, only other women?), the Sublime has to do with “the other basic hu- man instinct, that of self-preservation.” And here Burke is quoted directly:
Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain or danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant with terrible objects, or operates in a manner analogous to terror, is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.
For examples of “whatever is in any sort terrible,” Wilton lists “darkness, obscurity, privation, vastness, succession, magnificence, loudness, suddenness,” and in passing cites three natural phenomena that in fact are more than once depicted in the works on display: “the storm, the precipice, the waterfall.”
All three natural manifestations, it will be noticed, dwarf Man and render him helpless. Immanuel Kant, commenting at the end of the eighteenth century upon Burke’s concept of “a sort of delightful horror, a sort of tranquillity tinged with terror,” defined the Sublime as something “the mere capacity for thinking which evidences a faculty of mind transcending every standard of sense.” The Sublime is that which is “absolutely great” and “comparable to itself alone”; comprehending it places the mind under extreme tension. Of course, the attempt to include the terrible and menacing in objects of aesthetic representation is ancient, to be found in the idols of Africa, Mesopotamia, and Central America; if such are sublime, the Beautiful is the younger and more parochial concept. The eighteenth century, having taken reason, order, balance, prettiness, and civility as far as they could momentarily go, was ready to look into the chasm and appreciate wildness. The Gothic novel and Romantic poetry arose to express unmapped depths within the psyche; Napoleon swept all of Europe into a storm of political revolution; science was inexorably rendering nature more and more alien, mechanical, and vast; imperial exploration had annexed strange territories to the European consciousness; in the Western Hemisphere, European immigrants and their slaves grappled with the New World.
If vastness and danger produced sublimity, then the Sublime was to be found where nature reigned untamed, in the thunder of Niagara Falls, the shaggy mountains of the Northeast, the deserts and peaks of the Far West, the volcanos of Ecuador and Mexico. Frederic Edwin Church, in one of his most heroic attempts to portray transcendent, inutile grandeur, rendered with his painstaking brilliance the icebergs of the North Atlantic. Now, with Greenland crisscrossed by commercial air routes and the Himalayas littered with empty oxygen canisters, Antarctica is the Sublime’s last stronghold, where Man can still be cowed by the inhuman.
The excellent catalog texts by Wilton and Yale professor Tim Barringer tell us little about American landscape painting before 1820. Until Romantic developments in theology cleared the ground for Divine occupation of the wilderness, Nature was in a sense invisible. The Puritans averted their eyes from the forest, with its red-skinned deviltry, and their pragmatic successors like Benjamin Franklin were concerned with lightning’s harnessable power but not its thrilling scenic value. Full of inconvenient distances and obstructive underbrush, American nature was the dreadful Other, barely peeping into the windows of the staid indoor portraits of the upstanding citizenry of the colonies and then the enterprising young republic. Who would want to buy a picture of trees, rocks, and poison ivy when the reality stretched for miles on all sides? America needed Wordsworth, and his native apostles William Cullen Bryant and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to begin to love their rugged and interminable land.
American Sublime, thematically arranged (“Wilderness,” “The Still Small Voice,” “‘Awful Grandeur,'” etc.) in the polychrome, neo-Arabic rooms of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, opens with a canvas, by Asher Brown Durand, showing his friends Bryant and Thomas Cole, the father of American landscape painting, posed in frock coats upon a stagelike, sunlit platform of natural rock amid a precipitous landscape derived from sketches Durand made in the Catskills. The painting’s date is 1849, the year after Cole’s sudden death at the age of forty-nine, and its title, Kindred Spirits, was taken from a sonnet by Keats extolling the joys of “Solitude” in “Nature’s observatory.” An early patron, a dry-goods merchant, commissioned the work after Bryant had lengthily eulogized Cole before the National Academy of Design, in New York City, as one who “copied the forms of nature…and made them the vehicle, as God has made them, of great truths and great lessons.” Nature as the God-composed vehicle of great truths was the pious idea, or hope, behind much of mid-century landscape painting: Nature is our friend and looking glass, our bigger, wordless Bible. Bryant’s most famous poem, “Thanatopsis,” written when he was seventeen, begins,
To him who in the love of Nature holds
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language…
Furthering such a communion was, then, the ethical purpose of American landscape painting, mixed, at times, with the commercial aim of creating a salable souvenir of an especially prized sight, such as—within this exhibit—Maine’s Mount Ktaadn (Church, 1853), New Hampshire’s Crawford Notch (Cole, 1839), and New York’s Niagara Falls, (Church, 1856–1857, 1867; Albert Bierstadt, circa 1869; John Frederick Kensett, circa 1851–1852). In Europe, landscape painting per se was a relatively recent, early-sixteenth-century development spreading south from the Danube, the Netherlands, and northern Italy. Two seventeenth-century masters of special interest to the English, and thence to Americans, were Salvator Rosa (1615–1673), whose turbulent and theatrical mises en scène were thought to exemplify the Sublime, and Claude Lorraine (1600–1682), a Frenchman, born Claude Gellée, who spent most of his life in Rome and whose representations of Italian scenery were taken to epitomize the Beautiful. Claude’s careful arrangements, wherein gracefully leaning foreground trees frame a misted distant vista, create the impression of a wide garden, in which some structure—a viaduct, a ruined temple—confirms humanity’s nearby presence. Durand’s pristine Catskills have the same decorum, with their quiet dull color and a leaf-by-leaf stillness, as if fading under glass; though precipitous, the landscape feels subdued. Durand’s later work, The American Wilderness (1864), though formally composed, with its dark arboreal shapes drawing back the curtains, as it were, on the faraway blue mountains, renders a gashed trunk and fissured rocks with a precision possibly owed to John Ruskin’s admonitions to observe nature closely, especially its geology. The wilderness, examined with dedicated fervor, shows itself to be compacted of many small violences.
In Durand’s master, Thomas Cole, violence enters the paint: in Mountain Sunrise, Catskill (1826), the tortured shapes of blasted trees are highlighted by wormy lines of white, like congealed lightning, and rocks and clouds share a scrabbled shapelessness; two tiny, clay-colored figures hurry away in the shadows below. In his Landscape with Tree Trunks (1828), the shattered trunk in the foreground fairly shrieks, and a cloud lifts up in the middle distance like a crashing wave. Motifs and a mood imitated from Rosa shed their mythological playfulness in a land whose visible population is a lone Indian brave, a touch of wistful fancy in a region from which Native Americans had already been successfully eliminated. Cole’s painting Crawford Notch (1839) introduces, under the frothing sky and tawny mass of Mt. Washington, a few fragile houses of settlement, seen just above the foregrounded symbol of a wilderness being tamed: a sawn tree trunk. The stump, and the vivid red splashes of turning maples in the woods, mark the landscape as distinctly American. Queen Victoria, on viewing the violent reds in the work of Cole’s follower Jasper Francis Cropsey, doubted aloud that such colors existed in nature, and Cropsey, in England at the time, sent home for some autumn leaves to prove his veracity.
A Cropsey canvas like High Torne Mountain, Rockland County, New York (1850) carries Cole’s agitated impasto a step further, into a clotted mass of color touches. Cropsey, who after his marriage in 1847 lived some years in Rome and England, came under the influence of Turner; paintings like Starrucca Viaduct (1865), Dawn of Morning, Lake George (1868), and Greenwood Lake (1870) bathe in sunlight. The time of day—noon, dawn, and twilight respectively—becomes one of the picture’s subjects. In each, the still waters of a lake collect reflections, and the small figures present are there as viewers of natural splendor, rather than as actors in a Rosaesque melodrama. Cropsey came to the verge of impressionism and luminism without quite stepping over. The two Arcadian canvases, The Spirit of Peace (1851) and The Millennial Age (1854), influenced by Cole’s overtly Christian, allegorizing tendencies, seem primitive and garish in execution, their implausible landscapes littered with palm trees and imaginary monuments.
This sort of allegorical painting deflects a contemporary eye. But one of the curators’ centerpieces is Cole’s five-part series The Course of Empire (1834–1836), borrowed from the New-York Historical Society, where the five big (39 1/4″ x 63 1/4″) canvases have been gathering dust since 1858. James Fenimore Cooper called the sequence “the work of the highest genius this country has ever produced.” With Gibbon’s Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire plainly in mind, Cole follows the same picturesque bayside acreage—cleverly identified, in slightly differing perspectives, by a mountain topped by a rectangular boulder—through five stages of population: The Savage State, with wigwams, sparse bands of bow-and-arrow hunters, and a fleeing deer; The Pastoral or Arcadian State, with sheep, chiton-clad shepherds, and an intact replica of Stonehenge, evidently still in service; The Consummation of Empire, with more figures than the most fanatic bean-counter could count overflowing all the terraces and rooftops of a marble metropolis; Destruction, with slaughter, rape, collapsing bridges, drowning victims of their own decadence, and lots of smoke; and Desolation, with crumbling pillars and arches, a lowering sun, and two distant tiny deer, no longer hunted. Be warned, O nation of Manifest Destiny; thus is the course of empire.
No amount of conceptual ambition and patient dabbling at details quite annuls the touch of absurdity, of innocent concoction, when an American attempts the Grand Manner. The daily data of American life belong to a raw, evolving present, and not to the circumambient past a European can draw upon when he undertakes a Poussin-like historical landscape. The stately vagueness of the genre, its generalizing suppression of incidental details, goes against the native particularist grain. In Durand’s portentous God’s Judgment upon Gog (1851– 1852), the tossing clouds are real, the flocking gulls are real, the cliffs of stratified rock are real, even the spotlit, gesturing Moses is real, but the central incident, out of the Book of Ezekiel, is a muddle. Nor does Cole’s Expulsion from the Garden of Eden (1827–1828) do much for Adam and Eve; the poignance of their cosmic exile is lost in the painter’s Boschian phantasmagoria of a putting-green Eden nested beside the brown, craggy, intimidating rough of the outer world.
The American Sublime must be taken straight, without even a Hiawatha (see Thomas Moran’s surreal Hiawatha and the Great Serpent, the Kenabeek, of 1867) to act as guide. America was where Western Man discovered, not for the first time, that what is, is. In the opening rooms of the Philadelphia Academy setting of this show, the unmediated note, with no hint of a moral or strained preachment, arrives in John Frederick Kensett’s A Reminiscence of the White Mountains (1852). Cooler in palette than Cole’s autumnal shades, the painting has for its foreground no writhing tree but, from one edge of the canvas to the other, an extent of placid riverine water; in receding to a distant succession of mauve mountains, the work brims with a sense of transparent atmosphere. It has the quiet presence, the casual overall focus, of a plein-air meditation, though, like most of the works on exhibit, it was produced in a studio, from sketches made on the spot. Kensett’s refreshingly calm and noncommittal manner is carried into a more horizontal format in the glowing, golden landscapes of Sanford Robinson Gifford; Gifford seems to have stepped a considerable distance back from even the nearest objects in his paintings, and expands his misted spaces with the level monotony of undifferentiated treetops (Autumn in the Catskills, 1861, and Catskill Mountain House, 1862).
The pleasure of flat expanses—so different from the vertical unrest of German Romantics like Caspar David Friedrich or the American Albert Bierstadt, returns in the salt-marsh meadows of Martin Johnson Heade and certain canvases by Church. In contrast to Church’s crowded, luridly ruddy skies, Gifford’s tend to be cloudless, or lightly flecked; Hunter Mountain, Twilight (1866) shows a sliver of new moon and a speck that must be Venus; his Autumn in the Catskills holds a barely perceptible white blur that must be the sun—a striking number of these American landscapes stare, in fact, into the sun, as if looking for Godhead there. In Gifford we encounter, with some relief after the energetic natural tangles of Cole and Cropsey, the restrained quality of the exquisite, an inkling that less might be more.
Frederic Church is perhaps the star of the show; he is represented by the most paintings, and he is the best-known of nineteenth-century landscape artists, neglected by modern reputation-makers but never quite forgotten. A number of his most spectacular paintings are absent in Philadelphia; The Heart of the Andes (1859) has remained in the Metropolitan Museum and The Icebergs (1861) in the sweltering heart of Texas, at the Dallas Museum of Art,1 which had loaned it to the Tate for the London show. But the Pennsylvania Academy does display a number of impressively virtuosic landscapes, culminating with Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), its spectacularly flaming sky tingeing with red the foreground rocks and trees, as God’s glory is shed upon our earthly existence.
Church was, toward the end of Cole’s life, his one and only formal pupil; descended from a long line of Congregational clergymen, he was a fit soulmate of the enthusiastic Episcopal convert Cole. If anyone could extract a religious message from the American landscape, it was the auspiciously named Church. He not only read the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose Cosmos presented scientific knowledge as part of a theistic order, but like Humboldt he traveled to Latin America; at the foot of his huge showpiece Heart of the Andes he planted a small but spotlit cross—Christian imperialism by panorama. The late Stephen Jay Gould, in a catalog essay for a 1989 Church retrospective at the National Gallery,2 detected a connection between the drying-up of Church’s most grandiose inspirations and the publication, in 1859, of Darwin’s religiously desolating The Origin of Species. Certainly something has gone flat in Church’s large painting of 1866, Rainy Season in the Tropics; its murky stone spires are crowned with a vast double rainbow that looks as opaque as cardboard.
But in his prime Church, at full reach, was superhuman. The Andes of Ecuador (1855) dissolves a mammoth terrain in the sun’s head-on radiance; Cotopaxi (1862) gives us a distant, spouting volcano in a sunset terrain red as hot lava; Coast Scene, Mount Desert (1863), has breaking, sunshot waves that make Winslow Homer’s look schematic; and Church’s overwhelmingly original (in its close, compressed view of the falls’ full curve) and skillful (in its rendering sense of hurrying, agitated, then smoothly hurt- ling and airily frothing water) Niagara (1857) pronounces the last word on the ultimate sublime subject, the North American epitome of force and danger. One marvels that mere brushstrokes can convey so precisely the visual quality of a transparent medium in motion, so variously penetrated by light.
The oil, over seven feet wide, though not sent abroad to the Tate, has come up to Philadelphia from the Corcoran in Washington; on view also is the three-foot-wide oil study, on two pieces of paper, Horseshoe Falls, Niagara (1856–1857), which, at its smaller scale, is even wider and more interesting, in the livelier flicker of its painting, than the epic final product. When the eye has rendered all homage to the magic illusionism of Church’s racing water, it can rest on the modest far brown horizon of trees and houses (the United States, seen from the Canadian side) that ties the sweeping phenomenon to our stable domestic earth.
The fifth room at the Academy, labeled “Painting from Nature,” holds a wealth of quick sketches and studies that American landscapists produced on the spot; most are by Church, and any museumgoer who thinks of him as a photographic copyist should linger with these dashing, attacking works on paper. His attempt, at the base of the falls, to capture the collapse of sheeted liquid and the simultaneous rise of vapor produces abstract, irradiated fury. The loose Sunset across the Hudson Valley (1870), with its shocking golden clouds between layers of gray and blue-green, and its swiftly scribbled blackish landmasses, has a vigor sometimes leached from his more painstaking studies of the protean cloud forms inhabiting our spacious skies. The little Thunder Clouds, Jamaica (1865) shows, above the green monotone of tropical forest, cumulus aspiring upward with an ethereal majesty never enlarged upon in a fuller, more complicated treatment.
Church’s unfinished sketches of volcanos and icebergs have a scientific dignity: notes toward a supreme theory of being. Nevertheless, something of Cole’s anxious stridency remains in Church—a sense, in his more ambitious canvases, with their sharp edges and clangorous colors, of his trying to do too much, of not quite relaxing into the process. Ruskin, in a frequently quoted letter, said that Church did “not know yet what painting means”; but then Ruskin did not like Whistler either, at the opposite pole of painterly finish and pre-Impressionist realism.
The exhibit’s sixth room, titled “A Transcendental Vision,” is the largest and the one where our sensibilities greet the most expansive, relaxed, and radiant mood. And it is perhaps the room that needs least comment; the so-called luminists—Kensett, Gifford, Heade, Fitz Hugh Lane—have received plenty of modern approbation, and were handsomely commemorated in the National Gallery show of 1980, American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850–1875, with its far-ranging catalog by John Wilmerding. These painters worked in a kind of reverie, tranquilized by the sea’s flat horizon and silvery becalmed surface, and delivered the numinous hint the wilderness painters were striving for. By the mid-nineteenth century the eastern seaboard had long ceased to be wilderness; Lane’s and Kensett’s sailing ships and Heade’s haystacks and marsh punts testify to the ubiquitous hand of man. There is even evidence, in Kensett’s seaward views around Newport and Long Island and northern New Jersey, of the coast’s future as a vacation resort for the upper middle class. His mature style, suppressing any trace of the brush, has an unearthly glaze; the radically simple beaches and islands painted in his productive last summer, that of 1872, strip the world to a few pellucid elements. Eaton’s Neck, Long Island (1872) shows a dwindling curved width of beach, a bank of indistinct vegetation, a section of waveless bottle-green sea, a cloudless sky more gray than blue; Milton Avery and Mark Rothko produced nothing more audaciously simple.
In recent years, Heade has emerged from total obscurity as the creator of a celebrity American landscape: Approaching Thunder Storm (1859). Black clouds turn the waters of an inlet even blacker, but the rest of the shore world shines in sunny, pure colors. One can hardly help reading the advent of the Civil War into it; the halcyon rural antebellum world is about to be engulfed. Like Church, Heade traveled to South America to paint exotica, but his salt-meadow views, on canvases whose broad format was imitated from Church’s Niagara, capture a now-vanished aspect of working American husbandry.
Fitz Hugh Lane, the son of a Gloucester sailmaker, was crippled by polio and condemned to a life on crutches; his artistic leanings found commercial expression in lithographic illustrations and only in his mid-thirties did he become a painter in oils, almost always of marine subjects. Mostly self-taught, he can be timid and awkward in his lesser work, but his meticulous portraits of boats, the sails and riggings scrupulously detailed, achieved, by the later 1850s, atmospheric effects of enchanting delicacy. The pink-tinged calm of Owl’s Head, Penobscot Bay, Maine (1862), staining both sky and sea; the tawnier sunset of Becalmed off Halfway Rock (1860); the artfully diminished visibility of “Starlight” in Fog (1860); the contrast of bright-white sails and darkening sky in Schooners before an Approaching Storm off Howl’s Head (1860), as electric a contrast as in Heade’s famous painting—these weather-conscious effects convey an uncanny patience, imbued not only with the cripple’s humble literalism but with the amount of patience, while wavelets slowly slap and oarlocks creak, involved in maritime life.
A small adjacent room displays two big South American landscapes by Church as they were mounted, heavily framed and even curtained, for Victorian ticket-buyers. Paintings of this scale were show business, and, until photography gradually relieved the painter of reportorial duties, news from afar. Church’s main competitor in this business was the German-born Albert Bierstadt, who came to this country when he was two but returned to Germany for formal art training in Düsseldorf; he took instruction and encouragement mostly from the other Americans in Europe, including Gifford. His talent was so potent that Church, a fellow tenant of the Tenth Street Studio Building, ceded the American West to him; of all the American landscapes in American Sublime, only Bierstadt and the English-born Thomas Moran take us beyond the Appalachians.
Bierstadt sketched, with a deft and translucent touch, the plains (Surveyor’s Wagon in the Rockies, circa 1859) and the tawny hills (Nebraska, Wasatch Mountains, 1859) on the way to the Rockies. When the Civil War subsided, he ventured as far as the Yosemite Valley, whose needling stone spires gave him a heightened vision of grandeur, which flavors the gigantesque, rather fairy-tale splendor of, say, Rocky Mountains, ‘Lander’s Peak’ (1862) and, this show’s culminating blockbuster, Storm in the Rocky Mountains—Mt. Rosalie (1866). In this last, a furry black storm cloud seems to be devouring a lower slope of the mountain even as sunlight beats upon the rocks; beyond a high boil of clouds a snow-covered peak measures a scale of breadth and height in which the tiny Indian horsemen and tinier teepees in a flat valley are reduced to the stature of microbes. The canvas, and the several others as radiant and craggy if not quite as huge, overwhelms us with its towering vision and passionate detail; and yet there is something corrupt, something calculating and extreme in Bierstadt, a heightening of the already scarcely bearable, an imposition of geological melodrama that closes the chapter on the exploration which began with Cole’s and Durand’s attempt to apply European proficiency to a landscape where men still scarcely figured.
The other very large canvas in this final room is Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Colorado (1892, reworked 1908). The curious thing about it, to a tourist who has stood on the canyon’s rim, is how little it conveys of the canyon’s depth and breadth; we seem to be looking at a flat pattern of mesas and puffs of mist. Moran, as we can observe in an indistinct and tumultuous seascape like ‘Fiercely the red sun descending Burns his way along the heavens’ (1875–1876), was the closest approach to Turner among American landscapists (as well as, in his sinister Hiawatha illustrations, the most like Fuseli). Lit by the stark sun of the West, with only a few clinging shrubs for foreground vegetation, the Grand Canyon has become a vision, a pattern, a great postcard in no sort terrible, remote from pain and danger, sublime only in its indifference to human measure.
When one tries to think of twentieth-century heirs of these landscapes, one nets a modest catch: John Marin’s sketchy sea views, Marsden Hartley’s glowering Maine mountains, Arthur Dove’s semi-abstract suns, Georgia O’Keeffe’s parched mesas, eroded and orange and littered with cattle bones. Perhaps Edward Weston’s desert photographs and the John Ford movies set in Monument Valley most directly inherit the vision of a dwarfing, ineffable, God-haunted Nature. The Sublime, ignored by a modern art scaled to human pleasures and cultural irony, was reborn in the mid-twentieth century in the oversize, utterly abstract work of Pollock and Kline, Motherwell and Still, Rothko and Newman. Newman, who had originally studied to become a philosopher, wrote learnedly and feistily on the question “What Is the Sublime in Art?” in a 1948 essay, “The Sublime is Now.” Now, and American: he explained that
the failure of European art to achieve the sublime is due to [a] blind desire to exist inside the reality of sensation (the objective world, whether distorted or pure) and to build an art within a framework of pure plasticity (the Greek ideal of beauty…).3
Only in America, he claimed, was the artist free of Europe’s “moral struggle between notions of beauty and the desire for sublimity.” In 1961, looking back upon a triumphant but exhausted movement, the critic Robert Rosenblum, in “The Abstract Sublime,” cited Burke, who said, “Greatness of dimension is a powerful cause of the sublime,” and Kant, who located the Sublime in formlessness, “so far as in it, or by occasion of it, boundlessness is represented.” The critic hastened to purge these vasty notions of their old traces of the Divine:
During the Romantic era, the sublimities of nature gave proof of the divine; today, such supernatural experiences are conveyed through the abstract medium of paint alone. What used to be pantheism has now become a kind of “paint-theism.”
One cannot read such statements and doubt that the American yearning for the Sublime stems from our assumption, since the Puritans, of a favored-nation status “under God,” as the disputed phrase of the Pledge of Allegiance has it. Under God, under the lintel, as perilously high as possible: the danger and pain of the Abstract Sublime belonged to the painter, performing his high-wire act with only intuition and impulse to guide him across the immensity of canvas; the storm and precipice were purely within. The painter assumed the role of hero, not by virtue of what he witnessed and recorded but by all the traditional props and excuses that he disdained in his visible wrestle with paint itself. It was an amazing episode, understandably brief; we cannot take the sublime as a daily dose.
August 15, 2002
Its arrival in Dallas, in 1979, through the gift of an anonymous donor, is described in a brand-new book, Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church’s Arctic Masterpiece, by Eleanor Jones Harvey, with contributions by Gerald L. Carr, published jointly by the Dallas Museum of Art and Yale University Press. The painting was unveiled in New York, with the pomp and publicity usual for Church’s major productions, twelve days after the bombardment of Fort Sumter and, possibly because of the Civil’s War’s distractions, was displayed in New York in 1861 and in Boston in 1862 without selling, though it was enthusiastically viewed by crowds at a quarter a head. In London, in 1863, it was purchased by Edward William Watkin, an English railway mogul and member of Parliament; The Icebergs (originally titled, with unintended partisan significance, The North) remained in Watkin’s country house outside Manchester while he was alive and for nearly eight decades after his death in 1901; in 1979 the painting was discovered in the building, by then owned by the Manchester City Council and most recently used as a home for troubled boys. Auctioned off at the New York Sotheby’s in the fall of that year, it went for $2.5 million, a record for an American artist, and was quickly loaned and then given to the Dallas museum by its unknown purchasers. ↩
Frederic Edwin Church, by Franklin Kelly, with essays by Stephen Jay Gould, James Anthony Ryan, and Debora Rindge (National Gallery of Art, 1989). ↩
This and the subsequent quotations can be found in Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, edited and with an introduction by Clifford Ross (Abrams, 1990). ↩