Eighteen oil paintings displayed in two wood-paneled and parquet-floored rooms on the second floor of the National Academy Museum on Fifth Avenue show Frederic Edwin Church, the most successful and ostentatiously skillful of mid-nineteenth-century American landscapists, to have been, when he let himself go in his quick on-site oil sketches, a dashing wielder of the brush. Speed of execution let air into his art. A large showpiece like The Heart of the Andes (1859), which thousands in New York and London paid admission money to see, has come to have the creepy feel of a huge piece of nature immobilized under glass. Church himself must have felt the superior liveliness of his preliminary oil studies, for he framed them and kept them in Olana, the Arabian Nights dream-home he built for himself and his family in the early 1870s, on a hilltop in view of the Hudson, on 250 acres he had begun to buy before the Civil War.
He boasted, “Almost an hour south of Albany is the Center of the World—I own it.” The word “Olana” is one that Mr. and Mrs. Church found applied to a “‘fortress’ or ‘treasury-storehouse’ in ancient Persia.” According to Kevin J. Avery’s description in his excellent and entertaining catalog text, it feels like a fortress from outside and is a musty treasury within, evoking “nothing so much as a silent film set, minus a turbaned Douglas Fairbanks Sr. bounding down the stairs.” Avery can scarcely suppress the horror roused in him by the Churches’ horror vacui:
Everywhere—the glinting and glossy bric-a-brac: bronze, brass, iron or steel birds, a Buddha, candelabra, curtain rods, platters, planters, trays, urns, censers, shields, swords, and lances; ceramic vases, pitchers, jars, dishes, cups, and saucers. No horizontal surface in the house is clear of these tchotchkes, including the floor: it is the vacant chairs in each room that assure one that people lived here, though the furniture’s own busy surface decoration challenges even that assumption. From the first Church must have intended that the house would be the repository and museum of his worldly experience and taste.
Church, before his death in 1900, made sure, by appointing his son Louis as professional caretaker of his property, that his collected “plethora of the exotic” would remain intact; after Louis’s death in 1943 his widow, Sally Good Church, became the devoted caretaker of the fabulous hoard, and two years after her death in 1964 the state of New York, led by art-minded Governor Nelson Rockefeller, assumed the duties of preservation, making the house with its contents and grounds a historic site and public park. Thus Church, for decades relegated to the rolls of the half-forgotten, succeeded in imposing not only his house on a hilltop but his furniture and travel souvenirs on generations of tourists. Paradoxically, in assembling this domestic monument to his own high-Victorian taste, Church included samples of his work at its most free-spirited and modern.
The show is divided, unchronologically, between paintings done by Church on his travels and those done nearer home. He came to European travel late; though his father was a wealthy Hartford jeweler who could certainly have underwritten the Grand Tour then nearly requisite for an aspiring American artist, Frederic’s apprenticeship to the chief American painter of landscapes, Thomas Cole, and his own early success under Cole’s tutelage and at the New York City Art-Union, and his forays within North America, as far as Kentucky, Niagara Falls, and Canada’s maritime provinces, all made a transatlantic education seem superfluous.
His farthest journeys before the Civil War took him to South America and the equatorial Andes, where the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt had, as Avery puts it, “perceived an ideal encapsulation of Earth’s varied habitats, hot to cold, exhibiting a corresponding variety of flora and fauna.” Mount Chimborazo, at 20,577 feet the tallest mountain in Ecuador, was thought to be the tallest in the world; Humboldt set a world mountain-climbing record, which lasted for thirty years, by ascending to within 1,300 feet of its summit. On Church’s first visit in 1853, the top of the mountain was shrouded by clouds, but in 1857 it sat for its full portrait in the oil on academy board, Mount Chimborazo at Sunset. A year later, the mountain provided the basis for an eighteen-inch-wide Study for “The Heart of the Andes.”
Both those works, though relatively small, are more than sketches; Mount Chimborazo is majestically set off by a detailed brown foreground of rocky plains and two strips of red-tinged clouds in a pale yellow sky, and the study for The Heart of the Andes lacks few details present in the huge finished oil, including the foothills that have the dreary featurelessness of mud heaps. Church changed the sketch’s palm trees for what look like birches, muting the tropical hot-to-cold range that Humboldt prized, and added the famous little grave with a white cross on the lower left, where the preliminary version satisfied itself with a mission church visible in the middle distance.
Church took his name seriously. His mentor Thomas Cole had been a pious Protestant, and so was Church. His early canvases especially evince, as Avery puts it, an “impulse to Christianize the landscape,” and his flaming cloudscapes blazon forth God’s glory. The biologist and science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould theorized that Darwinism, supplanting Humboldt’s and the Reverend William Paley’s theistic naturalism, dampened and discouraged Church in the later, declining decades of his career. This diagnosis leaves out the rheumatic arthritis that made holding a brush painful, and the contemporary criticism that Church in his work wasn’t subjective and spiritual enough. His disenchanted student William James Stillman, an artist turned to journalism, in his 1901 autobiography delivered an indictment echoed by critics before and since:
He had little imagination, and his technical training had not emancipated him from an exaggerated insistence on detail…. His retention of the minutest details of the generic or specific characteristics of tree, rock, or cloud was unsurpassed by the work of any landscape painter whose work I know, and everything he knew he rendered with a rapidity and precision which were simply inconceivable by one who had not seen him at work…. But he had no comprehension of the higher and broader qualities of art…. His love of facts and detail blinded him to every other aspect of our relations with nature, in the recognition of which consist the highest gift of the artist.
As it happens, in the epochal shift of tastes, a love of facts doesn’t seem much of a defect now, and a reach toward higher and broader qualities arouses suspicion. Observant sketches on the spot have come to appear more soundly artistic than the finished canvases which strove to make an impressive, rounded statement. The one large painting in the Olana collection, El Khasné, Petra (1874), was held back from sale and given to his wife as a metaphor of their splendid house and, opulently framed in Orientalizing rosettes, hung over the sitting-room fireplace; but it made this viewer uneasy, with its flavor of Douglas Fairbanks Senior. A pink slice of a rock temple used in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade glows through a gap between two towering, lavalike flanks. The stony curtain is being drawn back on a mystery, a piece of pillared architecture as lovingly rendered in its capitals and tympanum as the shadowed rock slabs taking up two thirds of the canvas are dull, dark, and scrubby.
The painting is a stunt, overtly theatrical. Church was a painter termed (in relation particularly to The Heart of the Andes) Barnumesque; he was drawn to subjects with an element of spectacle—flaming sunsets, glaring icebergs, erupting volcanoes, as in the red canvas (not in the show) Cotopaxi (1862), jungles, deserts. He performed the task, already being assumed by photography, of bringing visual news of a shrinking world’s exotic sights. In his major work he did not generally trust—as did Vermeer, Chardin, and the Impressionists—painting to make its own spectacle out of ordinary, proximate existence.
Extreme literalism has become one of contemporary painting’s possible styles, a somewhat campy tour de force. In Church’s day it still had the dignity of botanical or geological investigation. Two meticulous oils on paper, done in Jamaica in the immediate wake of the Civil War—in what the grieving artist called a “change of scene, air and life” a month after the Churches lost their two small children to diphtheria—startle us with aspects of nature not seen in the American Northeast and with a sharply fresh, unstagy beauty. Both are almost entirely green in color, and, though painstakingly representational, have the overall look of many abstract canvases. Scene in the Blue Mountains, Jamaica (1865) renders a set of knife-sharp mountain ridges yellow-green with vegetation and devoid, but for a lefthand corner of nearby treetops, of any but the most minutely brushed, distance-diminished detail. That same summer’s Tropical Vines and Trees, Jamaica, presents a darker green in a close-up of jungle that, as if rhapsodically, gives each small leaf its dab of reflected light while growth crowds on growth in a frenzy of vegetation.
Returned to America in the fall, Church traveled with the same precise, impassive eye to Vermont, where he painted on paper Blueberry Hill, Vermont, a gravely quiet rendering—a “relatively spaceless, point-blank, broadside recording,” Avery says—of the autumn colors that the popular canvases of Jasper Francis Cropsey flamboyantly emphasized. Church calmly sees, in the canvas’s center, a grove of trees still keeping their green; on the mountains behind, scarlet is muted by distance to rust, and, in the right center, only one maple stands in full electric blush. Beneath this blazing tree, foreground rocks hold two parallel shadows, which the catalog ascribes to two tree trunks but which a sentimental viewer might construe as the elongating shadows of Church’s two dead children. He was fond of painted memorials: he centered a cross in his early Catskill view To the Memory of Cole (1848), and he repainted The After Glow (1867), intensifying its central radiance and adding the ruins of a stone church to the foreground in order to make it a remembrance of his sister Charlotte, who had died that year. Radiance haunts the last of his travel paintings on display, Mexican Forest—a Composition (1891), a crepuscular, even sinister study of tree trunks, done from within the forest in the manner of the newly fashionable Barbizon School, its minimal sunlight focused on one gnarly bole and upon a white bird, just beneath the painting’s single, tiny patch of blue sky, flying free. The sexagenarian artist, his reputation fading and his body crippled by arthritis, seems here to be saying goodbye to the light that had bathed his triumphal panoramas.
When, in 1867, Church at last, with his wife and infant son (the first of four children that were to replenish his family), embarked for the Old World, it was not Rome and Paris that stirred his enthusiasm but the Near East and Greece. The curious pink ruins of Petra, a “lost” settlement mentioned in the Bible and located in present-day Jordan, prompted a sunny oil sketch (The Urn Tomb, Silk Tomb, and Corinthian Tomb, Petra, 1868) from a more revealing and intelligible angle than the big, peekaboo El Khasné. Germany prompted the steeply Alpine Rainbow near Berchtesgaden, Germany (1868), but he looked back “with particular favor on the sun-parched-forsaken Syria. There is poetry—not here.” Rome he found full of bad artists and “gross architecture,” with “dull heavy languid air…so different from the brilliant exhilarating atmosphere of Greece.” The Parthenon, impressing Church far more than Roman ruins, elicited a somewhat tumultuous sketch, The Parthenon and the Acropolis (1869), worked up into a splendid, crystalline oil two years later, and the written testimony, “Daily I study the stones and find its inexpressible charm and beauty growing on my senses.”
The second, round room of the exhibit holds oil sketches done in New York State and around Olana. The earliest work on view, The Catskill Creek (1845), executed when Church was nineteen, seems much larger, more spacious and atmospheric, in the catalog reproduction than the real thing, measuring a mere twelve by sixteen inches. With its mirroring water and the boiling cumulus clouds rising behind the finely profiled mountain ridge, the painting testifies to Church’s phenomenal precocity. Cole is said to have claimed that his young pupil “possessed the finest eye for drawing in the world.” Twenty-seven years later, Church ebulliently daubed boiling clouds behind the profile of his newly completed Olana, and scrawled the date and his initials in the wet paint with the stub end of the brush (Clouds over Olana, 1872).
In those same prime years, he accepted a few students himself and undertook, possibly as a pedagogic exercise, a series of winter sketches of the grounds around Olana; the one he framed and kept among his treasures, The Hudson Valley in Winter from Olana (circa 1871–1872; see illustration on page 8), is stunning in its virtuosity—in the dashing dabble of rapid brown strokes that does for winter foliage in the foreground, in the pale-gray glaze of the distant Hudson, in the boldly crude spatter of white clouds scattered on the blue sky overhead. The vertical format, rare for Church, allowed him to sandwich a careful miniature landscape between two broad, loosely painted areas. Of the many American painters of snow, few have given us a white more creamy, and drifts more sweepingly indicated, than these.
Study for “Under Niagara” (circa 1858) deploys a brush loaded with white in depiction of cascading water; the brush strokes, applied downward with a rhythmic pulse of pressure, become the water as it topples in distinct runnels down into the mist of impact. Church had chartered the tourist boat The Maid of the Mist to hover as close to the falls as he could; he executed his marvelously dynamic yet scrupulously analytic study in forty minutes. The painting derived from it is lost, and the retouched chromolithograph of the vanished oil seems crude and unlovely compared with the thunderous, light-struck, magically deft sketch.
Two more oil sketches of Niagara adorn the show. The first of these in time, Niagara River Gorge (1856), feels a little formalized and frilly in its rendering of the tossing whitecaps of rapids upriver from the falls; nor is the interplay between rocks and rushing water quite convincing, and the dark forest and gray clouds induce a Victorian claustrophobia. However, Church’s foot-high, yard-wide study, on two pieces of paper, for the much-admired, still-thrilling Horseshoe Falls (1856–1857) is a consummate exercise, a thoroughly worked-out study for Church’s nationalist masterpiece, the oil Niagara (1857), at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. The sketch, a touch lighter in tone than the seven-and-a-half-foot-wide finished canvas, with a yellow sky instead of a blue one, and less sky squeezed into its pertly eccentric shape, is perhaps the more pleasing of the two—certainly it ingratiates itself with a twenty-first-century viewer more readily than its slightly pompous offspring. The brushwork in the sketch brilliantly renders the speed and translucency and weight of the water sliding over the drastically foreshortened curve of the falls. Notice, especially, the dancing white strokes that, on the far edge of the curve, convey the lines of ripples on the descending current.
As in the study of the falls from underneath, the activity of the brush becomes the activity of the water; painting and its subject merge. A kind of doom presents itself; we invest the river about to topple and crash, its submission to relentless gravity so empathetically pictured, with a soul; the grandeur is of ruin. Church’s love of visual fact and close detail carries him here into a perhaps unintended mode, the instinctive American mode of naturalism, whose trend is to the tragic. In the years he was completing Niagara, Darwin was readying The Origin of Species for publication. Nature could never again be schematically Christianized as it was by Humboldt.
Church’s signature depictions of sunset clouds, too, are tinged by the tragic, the vast, the magnificently indifferent. At the Academy exhibition of Olana’s private treasures, Twilight, a Sketch (1858), a twelve-inch-wide preparation for his large-scale Twilight in the Wilderness (1860), fills the sky with a continent of luridly reddened cirrus receding to a horizon of the painter’s pet sunset yellow, above a purple line of mountains and a murky foreground of trees and river lit by the feeblest last gleams; Sunset (1856–1865) shows the sky as divided, along a line as plain as the Mason-Dixon line, between that same yellow and a muted pink, while a thin scatter of orange-rimmed cirrus traces a gentle diagonal above a flat landscape already sunk deep in darkness.
Whether or not these expressive, bloodied skies allegorize the Civil War that raged or impended as they were being painted, they cannot be said to be blind, as Stillman charged, to the broader, subjective side of “our relations with nature.” It is true, Church was a showman—he dramatized the big version of Niagara with a suggestion of a rainbow and a coming storm in the upper left corner. He did not bring to landscape the softer, more contemplative qualities of Sanford Gifford and John F. Kensett. But his passionate cloudscapes are in fact moving; they speak of beauty that is evanescent, be it in clouds or mountains, and of the helpless act of witness which the painter wordlessly achieves.
March 23, 2006