Frederic Edwin Church

Orfeas Katsoulis | Feb 26, 2023

Table of Content


Frederic Edwin Church († April 7, 1900 in New York) was a major representative of the Hudson River School, a grouping of American artists known for precisely painted, often dramatic and allegorical landscape paintings. Thomas Cole, the group's founder, was his teacher. Similar to the latter, Church also made a point of giving his works a meaning that went beyond the mere depiction of nature.

Youth and education

Church came from a wealthy family. His grandfather Samuel Church had founded the first paper mill in the Berkshire Hills in Massachusetts, his father Joseph Church was a silversmith and watchmaker in Hartford (Connecticut) and in later years director of an insurance company. Frederic was thus able to pursue his interest in art at an early age without material constraints. At the age of eighteen, he became a student of Thomas Cole in Catskill (New York) for two years and, like his teacher, painted views of nearby mountain landscapes. Daniel Wadsworth, a family acquaintance and founder of the Wadsworth Atheneum, the oldest public art museum in the United States, had introduced him to Cole. In 1849 Church was elected a member of the National Academy of Design, and shortly thereafter he sold his first major work to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford.


Church settled in New York, traveling during the summer months to make sketches for his paintings, and returning in the winter to paint and provide for the sale of his paintings. Beginning in the late 1840s, he was influenced by the writings of the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), especially his descriptions of his five-year South American expedition (1799-1804). In his major work "Cosmos - Draft of a Physical Description of the World," first published in English in 1849, Humboldt had urged the artists of his time to travel and depict the world; in particular, they should visit South America and portray the "physiognomy" of the Andes, one of the world regions with the greatest geological and botanical diversity. Following Humboldt's 1802 route, Church made his first trip to the tropics in 1853, accompanied and financed by the young entrepreneur Cyrus West Field, who hoped to use Church's images to attract financiers for his South American projects. The undertaking led from Barranquilla in Colombia through the northern Andes to Guayaquil in Ecuador.

Another trip followed in the spring of 1857, nine weeks exclusively in Ecuador, from Guayaquil east to the volcanoes of Chimborazo, Cotopaxi and Sangay. Church's companion was Charles Remy Mignot, a landscape painter friend. The artistic results of the two trips solidified the reputation Church enjoyed. Along with Albert Bierstadt, he became the most successful American painter of his generation. By 1850, exploration of the North Sea was a matter of great public interest, especially with the spectacularly failed Franklin expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. Impressed by such reports, Church hired a ship in 1859 with Louis Legrand Noble, Thomas Cole's biographer, to sketch icebergs in the North Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland.

In 1860 Church bought a farm near Hudson (New York) a small town in the Hudson River valley, and married Isabel Carnes (1836-1899), whom he had met the year before at a New York presentation of one of his paintings. In 1863 Church was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Church's first two children died of diphtheria in 1865. Church and his wife went to Jamaica for several months, where he studied intensively the botany and light of the tropics. Four children born in the following years remained alive. With the first of them and with Isabel's mother, in 1867 the couple made a family trip of 18 months duration through Europe and the Middle East (with the present territories of Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Egypt), Church made side trips to Athens and to the rock city of Petra in Jordan to work.


Shortly before leaving for the Old World, Church had purchased a piece of land on a hill above his farm, which he had long wanted because of the impressive view of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains. Construction of a spacious residence began here in 1870, and the family moved in during the summer of 1872. Originally, a mansion on the French model was planned. After the trip to the Middle East, all plans were changed. In cooperation with a new architect, the Englishman Calvert Vaux, a colorfully ornamented, spacious building with Victorian, Persian and Moorish style elements was created. The designs for construction and decoration came mainly from Church himself, who made hundreds of drawings for architectural details. Poet John Ashbery describes the result: "The whole is breathtaking, and despite the profusion of architectural elements and polychrome decoration, it does not seem cluttered, but solemn and imaginative, like Church's painting." The property was named Olana, after the historical description of a similarly situated fortified treasure house in ancient Persia (now Armenia).

Since the mid-1870s Church was increasingly disabled by a rheumatic disease of the right arm, reason for annual winter trips to the warm climate of Mexico. Eventually he was only able to paint very slowly with his left hand. During the last 20 years of his life, he devoted much of his energy to beautifying his country estate. More than half of the original farmland was turned into a landscaped park. Church had thousands of trees replanted or transplanted, a swamp converted to a lake, and some 5 miles of driveways constructed. In addition, a summer house and a detached studio building were constructed. In 1884, the painter wrote in a letter to the sculptor Erasmus Dow Palmer: "I can create more and better landscapes in this way than by struggling with paint and canvas in the studio."

Frederic Edwin Church was buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.

Church's major works seem like direct renderings of real landscapes, but they are mostly free adaptations of the oil and pencil sketches he had brought back from his travels. He himself called them "compositions." From the sketches he had made of rivers, waterfalls, and volcanoes on the 1853 trip, he created The Andes of Ecuador (1855), at about 1.20 × 1.80 m Church's largest painting to date, along with other large formats. In January 1858, after his second trip, he began work on The Heart of the Andes, a depiction of a tropical landscape in which various elements of his numerous surviving travel sketches can be seen. Painted in detail throughout, the composition renders a broadly defined section of the landscape, with views of a river course in lush vegetation, high plateaus, and snow-capped mountain peaks-more than can normally be captured in a real scene. On April 27, 1859, Church presented the unusually large horizontal format (about 170 × 300 cm) for the first time in a special staging in New York. Curtains around the frame created the illusion of a view out the window, the room was darkened, only the painting was in the light. The audience sat on benches in front of the painting, it was fitted with opera glasses to better see the details. Exotic plants enhanced the desired impression. In three weeks, more than 12,000 visitors paid 25 cents each for admission. After that, the presentation was on display for two years in several other American cities and in London. The work was finally sold for $10,000, the highest amount paid for the work of a living American artist up to that time.

Church's painting Icebergs: The North, a result of his 1859 cruise, almost as large as The Heart of the Andes, was shown in New York and London in 1861. Other large-scale paintings of tropical and arctic scenes were shown as special events in private galleries. Church was less interested in explicitly moral and religious allegories in landscape painting than his teacher Cole, but he too expressed religious and patriotic sentiments in his work-painting pilgrim crosses in tropical landscapes or intense light displays as in Aurora Borealis (1865) or Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866). His symbolic landscape painting Our Banner in the Sky was painted in 1861, shortly after the Confederate storming of Fort Sumter (South Carolina), a key event at the beginning of the American War of Secession (1861-1865). Church was a staunch supporter of the Union of the Northern States and depicted their flag here as a celestial. The motif was widely used in the Northern states in a modified form as a lithograph. Well-known paintings that date back to the 1867 European and Middle Eastern voyage include The Parthenon (1871), The Aegean Sea (1877), Landscape in Greece (1873), Sunrise in Syria (1874), and Al Khazneh, Petra (1874).

Church regularly showed his paintings in the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design, the American Art-Union, and the Boston Art Club, along with the work of Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, John Frederick Kensett, and Jasper Francis Cropsey. Critics and collectors appreciated the particular form of landscape painting, and its creators were collectively referred to as the Hudson River School.

Towards the end of the 19th century, the interest of collectors and the public in the artists of this grouping and their work waned considerably. Around 1900, at the time of his death, Church was almost forgotten. Only after 1960 did recognition for his art gradually resume. Church's son Louis lived in Olana with his wife until 1964. Since 1965, the property has been designated a National Historic Landmark, is managed by the New York Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, and is open to the public.


  1. Frederic Edwin Church
  2. Frederic Edwin Church
  3. ^ Howat, 3
  4. ^ Kelly (1988), 2
  5. ^ a b Kelly (1989), 158–159
  6. ^ Avery, 17
  7. ^ Avery, 12
  8. Nils Büttner: Landscape Painting. A History. Abbeville Press Publishers, New York 2006, ISBN 0-7892-0902-0, S. 283–285.
  9. Past Academicians "C" (Memento des Originals vom 20. März 2016 im Internet Archive)  Info: Der Archivlink wurde automatisch eingesetzt und noch nicht geprüft. Bitte prüfe Original- und Archivlink gemäß Anleitung und entferne dann diesen Hinweis.@1@2Vorlage:Webachiv/IABot/ (abgerufen am 24. März 2015)
  10. The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. Biografischer Text. (Memento des Originals vom 20. November 2010 im Internet Archive)  Info: Der Archivlink wurde automatisch eingesetzt und noch nicht geprüft. Bitte prüfe Original- und Archivlink gemäß Anleitung und entferne dann diesen Hinweis.@1@2Vorlage:Webachiv/IABot/
  11. The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio. Biografischer Text. (Memento des Originals vom 20. November 2010 im Internet Archive)  Info: Der Archivlink wurde automatisch eingesetzt und noch nicht geprüft. Bitte prüfe Original- und Archivlink gemäß Anleitung und entferne dann diesen Hinweis.@1@2Vorlage:Webachiv/IABot/
  12. John Ashbery: "Frederic Church at Olana: An Artist’s Fantasy on the Hudson River". In Eugene Richie. Selected Prose. University of Michigan Press. S. 264. (2005). ISBN 0-472-03139-2.
  13. a et b (en) Kevin J. Avery, « Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) », sur The Metropolitan Museum of Art, août 2009 (consulté le 5 août 2021).
  14. ^ Büttner, Nils, Landscape Painting: A History, trans. Russell Stockman, New York, Abbeville Press Publishers, 2006, pp. 283–285, ISBN 0-7892-0902-0.
  15. ^ a b c Stephen Jay Gould, «L'arte incontra la scienza in The Heart of the Andes». In : I Have Landed, edizione italiana a cura di Telmo Pievani, traduzione di Isabella C. Blum, Torino : Codice edizioni (edizione speciale per Le Scienze), 2009, pp. 76-98

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