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Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch

The Terra Foundation for American Art is collaborating with the National Gallery, London, on a series of focused exhibitions aimed at bringing American masterworks to British audiences. The first exhibit, An American Experiment: George Bellows and the Ashcan Painters (2011), was followed by Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch (2013). Church (1826-1900) was selected as the greatest American exponent of the landscape oil sketch. At the National Gallery, Through American Eyeswas complemented by Through European Eyes: The Landscape Oil Sketch, an exhibition of European oil sketches from the Gere Collection, placing the work of the American Hudson River School painter in a broader international art historical context. The Scottish National Gallery loaned Church’s Niagara Falls from the American Side(1867) and then hosted the exhibition after the its London run.  

The catalogue essay by Andrew Wilton gives an excellent summary of Church’s artistic career, connecting it to events and influences in late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century British art. He discusses the major works by Church, giving art historical, scientific, and political context. Asserting that Church is one of the most “accomplished exponents” of the oil sketch, Wilton compares him to the great British landscape artist and oil-sketch master John Constable (1776-1837), going on to state that both men explored their emotional ties to nature. Wilton recognizes the monumental canvases Church produced from his sketches as filling a gap left after the death of the great British Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851). The author cites specific examples of the transatlantic interchange of paintings and prints to illustrate the influence of Turner and John Martin (1789-1854) on Church and his teacher, the British-born father of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole (1801-1848). Turner’s seascape Staffa, Fingal’s Cave(1832) was in the collection of American James Lenox in 1845and is often understood as an influence on Cole, Church, and other Hudson River School artists. Wilton discusses the less-explored similarity of Pre-Raphaelite painter John Brett’s Glacier of Rosenlaui (1856) to Church’s Heart of the Andes(1859) in their adherence to the directive of British art critic John Ruskin (1819-1860) to capture natural detail. Wilton credits Ruskin as an influence on Church’s career through his encouragement of accuracy in depicting nature and his promotion of Turner as the genius of modern landscape painting, making him someone worthy of emulation.  

Wilton articulates the importance of the landscape as defining America and illustrating or promoting the concept of Manifest Destiny. While American artists were encouraged to study the works of the great European artists, they also were tasked with capturing what was wild and fresh about the New World. Wilton selects Twilight in the Wilderness(1860) as Church’s final statement on the promise of this world, in conflict with the impending American Civil War.  

In his desire for scientific accuracy, Church followed the advice of German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt (1769-1859) to visit Ecuador and create a visual record of the flora and geology. The author posits that The Andes of Ecuador(1855), Church’s masterpiece from his first visit to South America, was influenced by the scale and atmosphere of the engraving of Turner’s Lake of Lucerne from Brunnen (c. 1844).  

The author concludes with a section on Church’s Olana, his home and designed landscape in the Hudson Valley. Wilton selects the Church quote penned in Rome, “The Tiber is not the Hudson,” to articulate the significance of the Hudson Valley for Church—his early days with Cole, the forty years he spent creating Olana, and the views from Olana as a favorite subject for sketching. The essay offers a lovely, concise look at Church’s career with some new specific connections to European works of art.  

The catalogue entries, and by extension the works chosen for the exhibition by Catherine Bourguignon and Christopher Riopelle, give visual insight into Church’s career. The exhibition and catalogue cover twenty-eight works. primarily from the collections of Olana and the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. As explained by Wilton, the works vary from the more complete and finished sketches that Church hung on his walls at Olana to the quick, often unfinished references to rapidly changing weather that were part of Church’s visual archive. In addition to the sketches, the curators included a few studio works, The Iceberg (1875) and the previously mentioned epic Niagara Falls from the American Side. For diversity of media, they also included a photograph of Niagara Falls enhanced with oil paint by Church—referencing the invention of photography in 1839and the role it would play as an aide-memoire for landscape painters—and a copy of the very popular lithograph of Church’s Our Banner in the Sky(1861) over-painted perhaps by the artist himself.  

The sketches and entries trace Church’s travels through North America with studies of the Maine Coast, woodlands, and icebergs. Trips to more exotic locales—Ecuador, Labrador, Jamaica, and the Middle East—are represented by depictions of volcanoes, icebergs, tropical foliage, and the ruins of Petra, in present-day Jordan. Europe is illustrated with castles and mountain lakes. Cloud studies and sky effects captured from Olana show Church’s lifelong pursuit of changing light and moving clouds.  

Above all, the catalogue and exhibition bring Church to a new audience and place him in the broader context of the European oil-sketching tradition. In his short essay, Wilton deftly brings forward key American concepts and European influences and artistic connections for the British reader. For an American audience, the book works equally well as an excellent introduction to Church and his oil sketches.  

-- Evelyn Trebilcock, Curator, Olana State Historic Site

 

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