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Around the galleries

Frederic Church: painter of nature as America’s national myth

— April 2013

Associated media

Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900,Obersee, July 1868 Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 33.3 x 51.4 cm. © New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation / Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY (OL.1980.1885)

David Eccleston admires the photo-finish and spirit of exploration of an American master

Tired of the milling crowd and sharp elbows at the RA’s Manet show?  Then I can make a suggestion to bring your blood pressure down.  One stop on the tube and a walk across Trafalgar Square to the National Gallery and the Frederic Church exhibition.  Just one tranquil room where you can walk right up to the paintings and examine the brushwork – and you may need to get very close to detect it.

This show is about the ‘landscape oil sketch’ but there is nothing at all sketchy about many of them.  If you were expecting something broad and impressionistic in style á la Constable, prepare to be amazed.  Some of Church’s small (32 cms long is typical) oils were meant to be shown, and the degree of finish can be almost photo-realist.

Campfire, Maine Woods of around 1856 examines a small area of woodland floor, in which a fire glows between twigs at the base of two fallen trunks.  The palette is muted so the fire sings out loudly enough to warm your hands, but then so do the isolated leaves and mosses.  This is not the brash 1960s photo-realism of Ralph Goings; this is a subtle evocation of nature as God’s work.

It reminds us of the historical context in a way that the exhibition just hints at and the catalogue essay by Andrew Wilton pushes a bit further.  With the present renewed interest in American painting (there is also the stunning Bellows show at the RA, which will be reviewed in Cassone shortly) it might be worth digging a bit deeper into this glittering, but ultimately tragic, passage of American life.

On 4 July 1826, 50 years to the day after the Declaration of Independence, two of America’s founding  fathers died: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.  Their deaths symbolized the passing of the first generation of the Republic, with no clear constellation of rising stars to replace them.  With no obvious subjects and no obvious indication of the course of history, portraiture and history painting started to wither and were replaced.  By Nature.  Nature became America’s national myth and a subject fit for serious depiction in paint.  Nature was also revelation – it revealed God’s plan for the world and America’s part in it.  The country was possessed of a natural panorama so dramatic that it became its answer to its lack of ancient monuments, with which it was reproached by Europe.

The man who imported the Romantic view of landscape was an English immigrant, Thomas Cole (1801–48), who is regarded as the founder of the Hudson Valley School of landscapists.  His high-viewpoint depictions of New York and New England’s vistas have an appealing sweep, but they are hardly the frontier.  The most significant painter to take the subject matter out of the relatively comfortable confines of upstate New York to the untamed wilderness beyond was Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900).  Church’s paintings gave form to the concept of ‘manifest destiny’.

Politically this concept fell in the mid-century into the hands of President James Knox Polk, who held the office between 1845 and 1849.  America’s eleventh President led the country to victory in the Mexican-American War, which resulted in sweeping territorial gains in the Southwest.  Almost since the start of the Republic, the acquisition of territory carried with it a poisoned chalice.  If lands were to be incorporated as states, were they to be slave-holding states or were they to be free?  The roots of the civil war were well established in American soil long before the 1860s.

The most significant image in the show from this historical viewpoint stands in uncomfortable aesthetic isolation as the first picture, but one whose dramatic narrative is not taken up.  This is Our Banner in the Sky (1861), Church’s rallying cry for the Union and his reply to the attack on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War.  The imagery was hardly subtle; the sky had the same dramatic red sunset stripes as Twilight in the Wilderness of 1860 (in the catalogue essay), but here they are tethered to the image of a tree-trunk that becomes a flagpole for the stripes of the Union Flag. 

With the uneasy peace of 1865, came the long slow process of reconstruction and this is really what the show largely represents.  Church’s reputation had been established in 1857 with his painting of Niagara Falls in a seven-and-a-half-foot panorama that toured both America and England.  After the war he undertook a challenging programme of exploration beyond the borders of America, which are represented here often as depictions of sublime nature. He returned to American sublimity with the show’s one really massive oil – a representation of Niagara Falls of 1867.

With his waning reputation in the 1870s came the construction of Church’s second great personal monument – Olana, the house that he built in upstate New York.  This phase of his life is characterized by a more impressionistic style as he paints the views from his perch high up on the banks of the Hudson.

Andrew Wilsons’ excellent catalogue essay draws us back to national history with a reproduction of Thomas Cole’s prophecy of the fragility of empire.  The decaying monuments of his 1836 painting Desolation, the last in his Course of Empire series, seems a fitting image for the difficulties of post-war reconstruction.


David Ecclestone
Art historian

Media credit: © New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation / Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY (OL.1980.1885)

Editor's notes

 The exhibition ‘Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch’is at the National Gallery London from 6 February–28 April 2013 and the National Gallery, Scotland from 11 May–8 September 2013.

The book accompanying the exhibition is Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch, 2013, National Gallery Company Limited, London, distributed by Yale University Press.  An excellent introductory essay by Andrew Wilton sets the scene historically and includes illustrations of works not in the exhibition, but which are key in an understanding of the Hudson River School of artists.  Reproductions of the exhibition’s works are generous in scale and number and accompanied by extensive commentary provided by Katherine Bourguinon and Christopher Riopelle

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