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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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The American landscape artist, Frederic Edwin Church, was born on 4th May 1826 in Hartford, Connecticut, one of the oldest and wealthiest cities in nineteenth century America. This biography examines his life and career in considerable detail.

His influential, affluent family were directly descended from the Englishman, Richard Church, who was amongst the original pioneers who journeyed with the Reverend Thomas Hooker to found the city two hundred years earlier. Church's father, Joseph, had increased the family fortune through several business interests and generously funded his only son's artistic ambitions.

Early Talent

In 1844 one of Joseph Church's associates, Daniel Wadsworth, established an art gallery and museum known as the Wadsworth Athenium in Hartford. He arranged for the eighteen-year-old Frederic to study in New York with Thomas Cole, a self-taught landscape artist who pioneered the Hudson River School style of romanticised art. As they painted and sketched the New England scenery of Vermont and Long Island, Church impressed Cole with his artistic ability.

Immediate Success

Two years later Church sold his first painting at the Wadsworth Athenium. It was a detailed study of his ancestor's journey in 1636 through the wilderness that was to become Connecticut. However, Church's sweeping landscape with its smoothly applied brushwork is far from wild. His romanticised image of the untamed landscape is botanically accurate and orderly. The large majestic trees and rocks to the foreground with tiny central figures against a panoramic landscape disappearing into the distance was an arrangement Church would repeatedly return to in paintings such as New England Scenery (1851), Cotopaxi (1855) and Passing Shower in the Tropics (1872). In form it is strikingly similar to Cole's The Oxbow (The Connecticut River near Northampton) painted in 1836.


Although Church shared Cole's steadfast Protestant beliefs he rarely painted overtly religious, allegorical scenes after his depiction of Moses Viewing the Promised Land (1846). A much stronger influence on his work may have been John Ruskin's book entitled Modern Painters which advocated showing the incredible detail of everything an artist could see in a landscape. He was also influenced by the increasing debate between scientists inspired by Charles Darwin's evolutionist theories and religious traditionalists who favoured the Creationist view. Church avidly read his copy of Alexander von Humboldt's Kosmos which outlined the artist's responsibilities in depicting scenes that showed how religion, nature and science were inextricably linked. Church's Home by the Lake and the Natural Bridge, Virginia, both painted in 1852 exhibit the painstaking detail of a photographic copy. Some critics such as George W. Sheldon believed Church's work lacked originality.

An Established Artist

At the age of twenty-four, Church was regularly exhibiting and most significantly, selling his work at the prestigious National Academy of Design, the Boston Art Club and the American Art Union. He was even sought to teach his skills to protegees such as Jervis McEntee and William James Stillman. By now his paintings such as Storm in the Mountains (1847), West Rock, New Haven (1847) and Otter Creek, Mt. Desert (1850) had become far more complex in detail than Cole's.

South America and Lumninism

In 1853 the entrepreneur, Cyrus West Field, was eager for publicity for his business interests in South America and duly paid for Church to produce paintings of Ecuador. The previous year Church had read Alexander von Humboldt's account of his journeys through the South American continent and his hope that artists would one day capture the unique scenery. Inspired by Humboldt's narrative, Church's landscapes such as The Cordilleras, Sunrise (1854) A Country Home (1854) and the Andes of Ecuador (1855) began to include striking bursts of sunlight and reflections on clouds and lakes. It was fairly typical of the luminist style being adopted by contemporary American artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Sanford Gifford and Martin Johnson Heade. Church's work shared their techniques of using undetectable brush strokes and horizontal arrangements of form.

Heart of the Andes

In 1857 Church revisited South America with fellow artist, Louis Rémy Mignot. Church completed highly detailed sketches which would be used later to create oil on canvas paintings. Morning in the Tropics (1857) and View of the Magdalena River (1857) are two examples of work from this trip. However, the painting which made Church famous was Heart of the Andes (1859). Church had evidently inherited his father's business acumen as people had to pay a fee to view it in isolation from his other work and he finally sold it for the then extravagant sum of ten thousand dollars. He used his commercial success during the American Civil War of 1861-5 to raise funds for injured Union soldiers and their families with prints of his work Our Banner in the Sky (1861).

Marriage and Family Life

In 1860 at the age of thirty-four, Church purchased land near the Hudson River in New York state where he settled after his marriage to Isabel Carnes. The couple had six children but tragedy struck when the two eldest died during an epidemic of diphtheria. Church and his wife decided to travel and took their family to England, France and Egypt before staying in Beirut at the home of David Stuart Dodge, an American missionary. During 1868, Church travelled extensively in the area making detailed sketches of scenes around the city of Petra and Damascus before taking his family to Constantinople, Greece and Rome. Returning home, Church proceeded to buy further land where he built a hilltop mansion in a distinctive Persian style. He then painted some of his most famous works from his recent travels such as The Parthenon (1871), Syria by the Sea (1873) and El Khasné, Petra (1874).

Later Years and Illness

During the 1870s Church began to suffer with rheumatoid arthritis in his right hand and by 1876 the pain was so severe he was unable to paint. Determined to continue his work, he learned to use his left hand and produced paintings such as Landscape in the Adirondacks (1878) and Chimborazo Volcano (1884). Church frequently sought the warmer climate of Mexico where he taught students such as Howard Russell Butler. With his wife suffering bouts of ill health, Church no longer painted so often and his last paintings were The Iceberg (1891) and Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp (1895).

In his later years Church's popularity had waned and his work was regarded as unadventurous and old-fashioned. In May 1899, during a visit to New York, Isabel died at the home of their friend, William H. Osborn. In the same place one year later, Church passed away on 7th April 1900. He was laid to rest beside his wife at the Spring Grove Cemetery in his family's plot in Hartford, Connecticut. Frederic Edwin Church was that most rare of nineteenth century artists in that he achieved wide popular acclaim and earned a fortune from his paintings during his own lifetime. And renewed interest in his paintings have seen them continue to command high prices.