In his prime, Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was one of the most famous painters in the United States. He painted huge panoramic landscapes, of mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets in exquisite detail and dramatic light. Some of his major works were so popular Church was able to debut them individually, in single-painting exhibitions to a enthralled New York City crowds who were more than happy to pay for the pleasure.
Born in Hartford in 1826, he was the privileged son of Joseph Church, a jeweller and banker of that city, who interceded with Connecticut collector Daniel Wadsworth to persuade the landscape painter Thomas Cole to accept his son as a pupil.
From 1844 to 1846, Church studied with Cole in his Catskill, New York, studio and accompanied him on sketching trips in the Catskill Mountains and the Berkshires of Massachusetts. At one point, Cole praised his student as having “the finest eye for drawing in the world.” After leaving Cole, Church established a studio in New York City and quickly gained a reputation, less for the allegorical landscapes that had distinguished Cole’s output, than for expansive New York and New England views that synthesised sketches of various location into vivid cohesive compositions. But it was one painting that did it for Church. In 1857, he leapt to nationwide and international prominence with a seven-foot-wide picture called Niagara. Niagara totally floored spectators in New York and Great Britain (where it was shown in 1857 and 1858) with its combination of breadth and uncanny verisimilitude.
By the late 1840s, Church had fallen under the spell of the renowned naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose treatises and travelogues based on his 5-year (1799–1804) expedition in the New World were widely translated and read. In his culminating work, Cosmos (1845), Humboldt beseeched artists to travel and paint equatorial South America.
Church listened. In 1853, with the young entrepreneur Cyrus Field, he made the first of two expeditions following in Humboldt’s footsteps, chiefly in Colombia; the second, in 1857, in company with the landscape painter Louis Remy Mignot, exclusively in Ecuador. With the large and highly wrought paintings that Church executed based on the sketches from those two journeys, he secured his lasting reputation and became (with Albert Bierstadt), the best known and most successful landscape painter of his generation. The New York exhibition of his ten-foot canvas, The Heart of the Andes (1859), housed in an elaborate windowlike frame and illuminated in a darkened room by concealed skylights, was the most popular display of a single artwork during the Civil War era, attracting over 12,000 people in three weeks to its New York premiere alone, then traveling to Britain and seven other American cities on a tour that went on for two years. The exhibition of The Heart of the Andes in New York was said to have spawned Church’s courtship and marriage to Isabel Carnes, in 1860, and the couple settled on a hillside farm overlooking the Hudson River at Hudson, New York.
Pursuing Humboldt’s global mandate and responding more particularly to the literature of Arctic exploration, in 1859 Church hired a bark to bear him and the Rev. Louis Legrand Noble, Thomas Cole’s biographer, to the north Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland to sketch icebergs. In 1861, at the outbreak of the Civil War, Church exhibited Icebergs: The North, nearly equal in size to The Heart of the Andes, to now expectant audiences in New York and Great Britain.
Subsequent major paintings of tropical and frigid subjects were typically at least seven feet wide and shown as special events in private galleries. Though Church had rarely shared his teacher’s taste for explicit moral and religious allegory in landscape art, he often disclosed both his patriotism and his piety by including pilgrimage crosses in his South American landscapes and brilliant sunsets, auroras, and rainbows overarching the terrain in major works such as Aurora Borealis and Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866), a pair of pictures that he conceived on the eve of the Union victory in the Civil War.
Church was painting Rainy Season in the Tropics when he and his wife lost their two children to diphtheria a week apart in March 1865. To assuage their grief, they sojourned for several months in Jamaica, where the artist waged the most intense sketching campaign of his professional life, completing some of his most vivid and haunting oil studies of botanical growth and tropical light. In 1867, with the first child of their revived family as well as his mother-in-law, Church and his wife embarked on a pilgrimage of the Old World, primarily in the Holy Land. There they traced Jesus’ mission through Palestine based on descriptions in the gospels.
On his own, the artist also visited the rock city of Petra in Jordan and, later, after the family reached Rome in winter 1869, he sailed across the Adriatic to Athens expressly to admire and sketch the Parthenon. The Parthenon (1871), was the principal result of that sojourn. Church also produced a spectacular view of Jerusalem (1870) and the Metropolitan’s The Aegean Sea (1877).
The most imposing product of Church’s Old World travels may be El Khasné, Petra (1874), which he installed as a gift to his wife in the Persian-inspired “castle” (as he termed it) that he built in 1870–72 on his hilltop property in Hudson.
Husband and wife dubbed the house “Olana” (based on a medieval geographer’s reference to a treasury storehouse in ancient Persia), and raised in it four children. In this period, Church also accepted the role of Parks Commissioner in New York City and became a founding trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The primary role Church assumed in the design and construction of his house coincided with the onset of rheumatoid arthritis, which eventually retarded if not arrested his artistic output and drove him to seek seasonal relief in annual winter visits to Mexico.
The artist also suffered the gradual neglect from patrons and public felt by all the Hudson River School painters, and by the time of his death in New York City in 1900 Church had been nearly forgotten. Nonetheless, the Metropolitan mounted the first retrospective of his work in the year he died and his reputation gradually recovered after 1960. Church’s son Louis and his wife Sally continued to live at Olana until her death in 1964, by which time the artist’s revived reputation generated a movement to preserve the house and grounds, which remain today one of the exceptional historic sites in the New York State park system.