Frederic Edwin Church was an American landscape painter born in Hartford, Connecticut. He was a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters, best known for painting large landscapes, often depicting mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets. Church's paintings put an emphasis on realistic detail, dramatic light, and panoramic views. He debuted some of his major works in single-painting exhibitions to a paying and often enthralled audience in New York City. In his prime, he was one of the most famous painters in the United States.
Frederic Edwin Church was a direct descendant of Richard Church, a Puritan pioneer from England who accompanied Thomas Hooker on the original journey through the wilderness from Massachusetts to what would become Hartford, Connecticut. Church was the son of Eliza (1796–1883) and Joseph Church (1793–1876). Frederic had two sisters and no surviving brothers. His father was successful in business as a silversmith and jeweler and was a director at several financial firms. His mother's brother was Adrian Janes, who owned an iron foundry that constructed the U.S. Capitol Dome. The family's wealth allowed Frederic to pursue his interest in art from a very early age. In 1844, aged 18, Church became the pupil of landscape artist Thomas Cole in Catskill, New York after Daniel Wadsworth, a family neighbor and founder of the Wadsworth Athenaeum, introduced the two. Church studied with him for two years; by this time his talent was more than evident. Cole wrote that Church had "the finest eye for drawing in the world". During his time with Cole, he travelled around New England and New York to make sketches, visiting East Hampton, Long Island, Catskill Mountain House, The Berkshires, New Haven, and Vermont. His first recorded sale of a painting was in 1846 to Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum for $130; it was a pastoral depicting Hooker's journey in 1636. In 1848, he was elected as the youngest Associate of the National Academy of Design and was promoted to full member the following year. He took his own students including Walter Launt Palmer, William James Stillman and Jervis McEntee.
New England Scenery (1851) was Church's "first true composite landscape"—it used sketches from various locations to develop a more detailed and spatially complex landscape than found in Cole's work.
Romanticism was prominent in Britain and France in the early 1800s as a counter-movement to the rationalism of the Age of Enlightenment. Artists of the Romantic period often depicted nature in idealized scenes that depicted the richness and beauty of nature, sometimes with emphasis on its grand scale. This tradition carried on in the works of Church, who idealizes an uninterrupted nature, highlighted by his excruciatingly detailed art. The emphasis on nature is encouraged by low horizontal lines and a preponderance of sky. Church usually "hid" his brushstrokes so that the painting surface was smooth and the painter's "personality" seemingly absent.
Church was the product of the second generation of the Hudson River School, a movement in American landscape art founded by his teacher Thomas Cole. Both Cole and Church were devout Protestants, and the latter's beliefs played a role in his paintings, especially his early canvases. Hudson River School paintings were characterized by their focus on traditional pastoral settings, especially the Catskill Mountains, and their Romantic qualities. They attempted to capture the wild realism of an unsettled America that was quickly disappearing, and the appreciation of natural beauty. His American frontier landscapes show the "expansionist and optimistic outlook of the United States in the mid-nineteenth century." Church differed from Cole in the topics of his paintings: he preferred natural and often majestic scenes over Cole's propensity towards allegory—though Church's work has increasingly been re-examined in terms of themes and meanings.
The Prussian explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt was a major influence on Church. In his Kosmos, Humboldt put forth a vision of the interconnectedness of science, the natural world, and spiritual concerns. Kosmos, which Church owned, dedicated a chapter to landscape painting; Humboldt gave an important role to the visual artist in "scientifically" portraying the diversity of nature, especially in the New World. As Charles Darwin's theory of evolution began to overturn Humboldt's ideas of unity in the 1860s, art historians have examined how Church's painting responded to this disruption in Church's world view.
The English art critic John Ruskin was another important and big influence on Church. In Ruskin's Modern Painters, he emphasizes the close observation of nature: "the imperative duty of the landscape painter [is] to descend to the lowest details with undiminished attention. Every class of rock, every kind of earth, every form of cloud, must be studied with equal industry, and rendered with equal precision." This attention to detail must be combined with the artist's interpretation, impressions, and imagination to achieve great art. While Church's paintings were widely praised in the 1850s and 1860s, some critics found his detailed panoramas lacking in the imaginative or poetic. In his 1879 American Painters, George W. Sheldon wrote of Church's canvases, "It is scarcely necessary to ... explain what their principal defect is, because, by this time, that defect must have been recognized by almost every intelligent American lover of art. It consists in the elaboration of details at the expense of the unity and force of sentiment.... They are faithful and beautiful, but they are not so rich as they might be in the poetry, the aroma, of art. The higher and spiritual verities of Nature are the true home of landscape art."
Some of Church's paintings relate to, and influenced, the luminist landscape style as well. Luminist art tends to emphasize horizontals, use non-diffuse light, and hide brushstrokes such that the painter's presence, or "personality", is less apparent to the viewer. An exhibition book considers Church's Morning in the Tropics and Twilight in the Wilderness to highlight the style's "meticulous draftsmanship and intense colors", while Cotopaxi and The Parthenon "exemplify the style ... in their panoramic structure". Nevertheless, Church is not considered a primarily luminist artist.
Church began his career by painting classic Hudson River School scenes of New York and New England, but by 1850, he had settled in New York. He exhibited his art at the American Art Union, the Boston Art Club, and (most impressively for a young artist) the National Academy of Design. His method consisted of creating paintings in his studio based on sketches in nature. In the earlier years of his career, Church's style was reminiscent of that of his teacher, Thomas Cole, and epitomized the Hudson River School's founding styles. As his style progressed he departed from Cole's approach: he painted in more elaborate detail and his compositions became more adventurous in format, sometimes with dramatic light effects.
Church quickly earned a reputation as a traveler-artist, with early domestic painting and sketching trips to the White Mountains, western Massachusetts, the Catskills, Hartford, Conn, Niagara, Virginia, Kentucky, and Maine. He made two trips to South America in 1853 and 1857 and stayed predominantly in Quito, visiting the volcanoes and cities of modern day Colombia and Ecuador, and crossing the isthmus of Panama. The first trip was with businessman Cyrus West Field, who financed the voyage, hoping to use Church's paintings to lure investors to his South American ventures. Church was inspired by Alexander von Humboldt's exploration of the continent in the early 1800s; Humboldt had challenged artists to portray the "physiognomy" of the Andes. After Humboldt's Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America was published in 1852, Church jumped at the chance to travel and study in Humboldt's footsteps. When Church returned to South America in 1857 with painter Louis Rémy Mignot, he added to his sketches of the area. After both trips, Church had produced a number of landscapes of Ecuador and the Andes, such as The Andes of Ecuador (1855), Cayambe (1858), The Heart of the Andes (1859), and Cotopaxi (1862). The Heart of the Andes, Church's most famous painting, pictures several elements of topography combined into an idealistic, broad portrait of nature. The painting was very large, yet highly detailed; every species of plant and animal is identifiable and numerous climate zones appear at once.
As he had with Niagara before, Church debuted The Heart of the Andes in a single-painting exhibition in New York City in 1859. Thousands of people paid to see the painting, with the painting's huge floor-based frame playing the part of a window looking out on the Andes. The audience sat on benches to view the piece, sometimes using opera glasses to get close, and Church strategically arranged the room to illuminate the painting with the light from overhead skylights. The work was an instant success. Church eventually sold it for $10,000, at that time the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist.
Church’s friendship with Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes, a prominent arctic explorer, stimulated the artist’s interest in the arctic regions. In 1859, Church and his good friend Rev. Louis Legrand Noble traveled to Newfoundland and Labrador. The journey was chronicled in Noble’s book After Icebergs with a Painter (1861), published shortly before Church’s painting “The Icebergs” went on display.
By 1860, Church was the most renowned American artist. In his prime, Church was a commercial as well as an artistic success. Church's art was very lucrative; he was reported to be worth half a million dollars at his death in 1900.
In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Church was inspired to paint Our Banner in the Sky by a sunset featuring red, white, and blue that he believed was a symbol that "the heavens indicated their support for the United States by reflecting the nation's colors in the setting sun". A lithograph was made from it and sold to benefit the families of Union soldiers.
In 1863, he was elected an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
In 1860, Church bought a farm near Hudson, New York and married Isabel Mortimer Carnes (born 1836, of Dayton, Ohio), whom he had met during the New York exhibition of The Heart of the Andes. They soon started a family, but their two-year-old son Herbert and five-month-old daughter Emma both died of diphtheria in March 1865. A few months later, as the Civil War came to an end, still grief stricken, Church and his wife, and a young artist friend traveled to Jamaica. Church sketched and Isabel made a collection of pressed Jamaican ferns of which there were many spectacular varieties. He and his wife started a new family with the birth of Frederic Joseph in 1866, followed by Theodore Winthrop in 1869, Louis Palmer in 1870 and Isabel Charlotte ("Downie") in 1871.
In late 1867, Church began the longest period of travel of his career. That fall he and his family went to Europe, moving through London and Paris fairly quickly. From Marseille they went to Alexandria, Egypt, but Church did not visit the pyramids, perhaps being afraid to leave his family alone. Passing through Jaffa, they arrived at Beirut, where they spent four months. They stayed with American missionaries, including David Stuart Dodge. In February 1868 Church travelled with Dodge to the city of Petra by camel from Jerusalem. There he sketched the Al Khazneh tomb, which became the subject of one of his important later works, El Khasné, Petra (1874). Later that spring the family visited Damascus and Baalbek, then sailed the Aegean Sea with a stop in Constantinople. Back in southern Europe by summer, they wintered in Rome. There were many American artists in Rome that year, and they joined several artist/friends, including Sanford Robinson Gifford, Jervis McEntee and other friends who were also living in Rome. While in Rome, Church learned fresco painting, and made a collection of “Old Masters” paintings. However, apparently Europe on the whole did not seem to interest Church as it did most American artists of the 19th century, many of whom traveled there to experience the Western artistic heritage. Leaving his expanded family in Rome with friends, Frederic made a two-week visit to stay in Athens ended the journey in April 1869. At Athens the Parthenon exceeded all his expectations as the finest single specimen of architecture in the world, and he sketched and painted energetically. The Churches left Rome in May 1869, and made their way home via Paris and England, arriving home by the end of June.
Before departing America for that trip, Church purchased the 18 acres (7.3 ha) on the hilltop above his Hudson farmland, which he had long wanted for its magnificent views of the Hudson River and the Catskills. In 1870, he began the construction of a Persian-inspired mansion on the hilltop, and the family moved into the home in the summer of 1872. Today this estate is conserved as the Olana State Historic Site. Richard Morris Hunt was consulted early on in the plans for the mansion at Olana, but after the Churches' trip, the English-born American architect Calvert Vaux was hired to complete the project. Church was deeply involved in the process, even completing his own architectural sketches for its design. This highly personal and eclectic building incorporated many of the design ideas that he had acquired during his travels. In one letter of the period, he wrote “I have made about 1 3 /4 miles of road this season, opening entirely new and beautiful views. I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio." He devoted much of his energy during his last twenty years to Olana.
Church had been enormously successful as an artist. In his last decades, illness limited Church's ability to paint. By 1876, Church was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis, making painting difficult. He eventually painted with his left hand and continued to produce works, although at a much slower pace. He still taught painting as Cole had before him. Two students were Walter Launt Palmer, son of his close friend Erastus Dow Palmer, and Howard Russell Butler. In later life he often wintered in Mexico, where he taught Butler.
Spending time at Olana and in Mexico, Church was less exposed to trends in New York City. He kept a studio there into the 1880s, but it was usually sublet to Martin Johnson Heade. His wife Isabel had been ill for years, and she died on May 12, 1899, at the home of their late friend and patron, William H. Osborn, on Park Avenue in New York. Less than a year later, on April 7, 1900, at the age of 73, Church also died at the home of Osborn's widow. Frederic and Isabel were buried in the family plot at Spring Grove Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.