Artist of the Month (October)
Frederic Edwin Church
Copyright belongs to the Museum 2016.
Ah, the Hudson River School, capturing the literal nature of what it means to be one with the world from 1825 through 1870! I recently saw this Romantic (capital ‘R’) Church painting, as well as a whole host of others in the same tradition, under the bright, promising lights of the Met‘s American Wing, a rediscovered favorite. In all likelihood, you will not get an accurate sense of the breadth of Church’s masterpiece (it spans 10 feet)– nor that of his mentor Thomas Cole‘s equally stunning and beloved work, View from Mount Holyoke– from the above photo. It deserves a trip to the Museum, a pilgrimage of sorts. But why Church to begin with? Who was he? What do we know about him besides the fact that he made really large and intricate pieces?
The latter questions will be answered by the bio of Church provided through Artsy below (for those unfamiliar with the site, it is a cross between Linkedin, Tumblr, Facebook, Paddle8, and Artforum, though dealing chiefly in art and design-related matters). And with regard to my choice of Church for October’s Artist of the Month, I chose him because of my reengagement with his massive, towering artworks this past week, and the effect our rendezvous had on me: I returned home inspired, invigorated, full of awe for the pastoral, lush, near-wild beauty of the Americas and the talent of her portrayers. I laughed internally as I stood before it, mournful; in my mind, the blooming Heart of the Andes is in stark contrast with what remains of the jungles, hills, or potential rustic scenes of today as transformed by climate change and industrialization. We see the painting as it hangs dignified among its quality peers; thankfully, the Museum makes a point of not juxtaposing the work with contemporary panoramic incarnations, giving the School its 15 minutes of art history fame and upholding Church’s prophetic timelessness. In retrospect, I recognize how foolish it is to miss what, as a child of technology and a sardined city, I do not know and Church, alone, has familiarized me with. Yet although it would be imprudent and deceitful of me as a writer and seer of things to circumvent the matter of our presently bleak geopolitical and, therein, environmental tides in my discussion of Church’s painting and the man, himself, to weigh down an introduction to his uplifting work and artistic practice with social-justice posturing and raging sentiments is just as, if not more, fallacious. Nonetheless, as I contemplate the piece, it raises what has become an even generic problem, at this point: can the modern viewer, so accustomed to self-imposed, or societally “structured,” demands for finding interdisciplinary connections between works– for seeing everything through the lens of what sort of statement it is making, in light of x, y, or z– appreciate art for what it just is? For simply being?
At the moment, I have no answer; I itch for one without the patience to read Clement Greenberg. But now that I’ve acknowledged the intellectual, experiential ethos of my surroundings, which, as a beginner critic, I am wont to do, I’ll move on and tell you a little bit more about Frederic Edwin Church. A non-trigger warning: do not think that Church and Cole’s 19th Century origins and bucolic focus render the Hudson River School technique and legacy obsolete. This summer, quite unexpectedly, I came across a Stephen Hannock piece like this one at Smith College Museum of Art‘s show, The Lay of the Land; it and the exhibit puts a modern twist on an old classic.
So Church, right? I feel this write-up is less about him and more about the process of my encounter with his art. An adapted version of the Artsy characterization:
In the spring and autumn seasons… [he] was known to travel extensively by foot, collecting sketches he would later turn into paintings in winter. As one of the most prominent figures in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters, Church captured the phenomena of his natural surroundings, such as waterfalls, rainbows, sunsets, and volcanoes, in massive dimensions with astounding verisimilitude. During early study under landscape painter Cole, Church developed his eye by joining [him] in sketching the Catskill and Berkshire Mountains. Upon establishing his own studio in New York, Church traveled extensively; inspired by the writings of Prussian explorer Alexander Von Humboldt, he traversed South America, and later traveled to the North Atlantic to sketch icebergs, Jamaica to capture the tropics, and Palestine to retrace Jesus’s footsteps.
The American Wing’s Keven Avery did a more thorough estimation of Church back in 2009, available here (if you would like to delve further, the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline is an excellent resource in all things art movements and periods, including the Hudson River School). Additional closeups of Heart of the Andes can be viewed on the Museum’s website, and in following up with October’s Arcadian theme, I would recommend studying U.S. National Parks photography, a whole genre unto itself, in the spirit of Church and Cole.