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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Frederic Edwin Church was an American romantic landscape artist born in Connecticut in 1826. Descended from the original Founding Fathers, Frederic's family was upper-middle class and he enjoyed a fairly privileged upbringing.

This financial comfort, of course allowed him to indulge his penchant for art at a young age. Famous for his enormous and meticulously detailed canvases, Church is perhaps the best known of the Hudson River School painters. He enjoyed a great deal of critical and financial success throughout his career, but towards the end of his life his popularity dwindled. Nonetheless, Church’s paintings are widely sought after today with his work enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in the mid-20 th century. In 1979 after interest had been renewed, Frederic’s work, “The Icebergs” (1861) was acquired at auction for $2.5 million, the third highest price ever paid for a painting at that time.

Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School

Frederic was interested in painting from a very early age and by the time he reached eighteen he was invited to study with the great landscape artist Thomas Cole. Cole founded the Hudson River School in 1825 and, by the time he became Church’s tutor, had long established himself as a leading light in American landscape art. The Hudson River School was a group of loosely affiliated painters who shared a great love of the New England scenery and believed in the peaceful communion of man and nature. The movement was based on three fundamental themes; discovery, exploration and settlement and their work often depicted romanticised pastoral scenes of the great American wilderness.

Cole was very impressed with Frederic and considered him a great talent. In fact, he is quoted as saying that, “Church has the finest eye for drawing in the world”. Frederic studied under Thomas for two years and during that time developed his skills considerably. He was inspired by the surrounding countryside of New York State and travelled all over New England sketching and honing his craft. In 1846 Church sold his first painting and by 1948, at the tender age of 22 he took on students of his own.

After the untimely and sudden death of Thomas Cole in late 1848, Frederic became the de facto leader of the Hudson River School and a second generation of the movement was born. This new breed of landscape artists was to find artistic inspiration further beyond New England and they would produce some of the finest and awe-inspiring works ever seen.

Inspirations and Style

Even though Church was a "new broom" at the helm of the Hudson River School, he still held true to the fundamentals of the group. Like Cole, Frederic was a devout protestant and he sought always to romanticise, even idealise nature which he believed strongly was God’s creation. He was greatly inspired by writers of the day including British social thinker John Ruskin and particularly, Prussian naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt. Frederic was exhilarated by Humboldt’s book, “Kosmos”, which, based on the author’s extensive travels, put forward his views on the harmony between science and nature. The descriptions of South America especially fascinated Church, consequently, in 1853 he decided to retrace Humboldt’s steps and journey to Ecuador himself.

Travelling was to prove the most productive and enduring inspiration of Church’s life, expanding his globe-trotting to include Europe, the Middle East and even the Arctic. After his 1853 trip to South America, he returned in 1857 and brought back countless sketches which in turn spawned a great many large and beautiful canvases. However, in 1859 he created his first great masterpiece, “The Heart of the Andes”. The painting was a triumph and Frederic had undoubtably found his style. His future as a painter of renown was assured.

Church’s style was epic. His paintings were massive panoramic views full of light and meticulous in their detail. Many critics, in fact, believed that the composition of his work often suffered precisely because he paid too much attention to detail; perhaps not poetic enough for a romantic painter. Nonetheless, supporters of his work then and today would disagree, and he is widely regarded as one of the greatest landscape artist America has ever produced. He is famous for his use of colours to evoke atmosphere and powerful scenes of light and dark.

Church’s Important Works

Frederic was not as prolific a painter as many of his fellow landscape artists, producing only 214 works in his 50-year career. However, what he lacked in volume, he certainly made up for in quality, leaving behind some truly profound paintings. “The Heart of the Andes” (1859) is the largest and must surely be the most significant of Church’s works, as it completely changed his life. Housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Washington DC this enormous 3-metre-wide painting, depicts an idealised Andean scene with such detail, people who first saw it could have believed it was a window onto a South American Vista.

It was first exhibited in New York in 1859 and it generated the highest public turnout of any single painting at the time. Not only did it fetch a record price for any living artist of $10,000, but it gave rise to poetry and music being written in its honour. While modern critics have condemned it as somewhat puerile in its composition, for many it remains the epitome of the Hudson River School ethos; the romantic perfection of nature.

While some may have issue with “The Heart of the Andes”, few can dispute that, “Niagara Falls form the American Side” (1867) is truly Church’s masterpiece. This massive 2.5-metre-tall canvas housed in the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, is the very essence of romantic landscape art. As the name would suggest it depicts a view of the falls from the American side, but the perspective is such that the viewer could believe that they were huddled on a ledge by the side of the water. Not content with the drama of the composition, Frederic then managed to produce such realism in the movement of water that one can almost feel the spray and hear the roar. This painting, like several of Church’s large canvases, went on tour around the US and to Great Britain and it was hailed as a phenomenon. In 1887, American businessman, John S. Kennedy bought it and gave it to the people of his mother country, Scotland. To this day it is the only of Church’s works to be on public display in Europe.

In later life, Frederic found the confidence to reach outside the tried and tested style that had brought him fame. Inspired by his extensive travels to the middle east, “El Khanse, Petra” (1874) is not the huge vista of South America nor is it the dramatic scenery of Niagara, but it is instead a secret glimpse into Frederic’s own reaction to seeing the ancient glory of Jordan for the first time. The painting depicts a partial view of the Al-Khazneh Temple in Jordan through a narrow opening of rock. It is typically immaculate in its detailing, but the use of light creates an intimacy that is rarely available in Church’s work. Perhaps it reflects the fact that he created this painting specifically as a gift for his wife to hang in their home that we are allowed to see a more personal expression of his work. The painting still hangs in their house “Olana” today, which is now a State Historic Site in New York.

The Legacy of Frederic Edwin Church

Frederic’s legacy is that of a voice of the people. His works were grand and awe-inspiring and in a very unique way they encapsulated the beliefs that built America. People of Church’s time and the developing west felt that they were manifesting their destiny by seeking out “the American dream” as it was laid down by their new constitution. Frederic’s canvases came to symbolise everything glorious in the “New World”. Although his paintings fell out of favour for some time, they are now considered part of the “Great American Story” and have price of place within the country’s history.

Church’s house which he designed and built for his family overlooking the Hudson valley is also part of his great legacy. Inspired by Persian structures which he admired on his trips to the middle east and named “Olana”, today it is owned and run by New York State Parks and Recreations as a heritage site where many of Frederic’s works are still displayed. The house is supported by the “Olana Partnership”, a Church family charity, which help organise exhibits and finances the maintenance of the house.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly to the art world at large, Frederic has been said to have inspired the expansion of the so-called “American Impressionists” who developed at the end of the 19 th century such as Theodore Robinson and Frank Weston Benson. Although they rejected his romantic style, they honoured and expanded on his methods of outdoor sketching and embraced the realities of nature and light through vivid colours. Church’s landscapes are an inspiration to artist to this day and they continue to offer a masterclass in detail and light.