FREDERIC EDWIN CHURCH 1826-1900
In the Andes, 1878
Oil on canvas, 15 3/16 X 22 3/16" (38.57 x 56.35 cm.)
Signed, lower left
Museum purchase, 978-0-102
American artists of the mid-nineteenth century usually went to Europe or the western frontier in order to expand their repertoire. Frederic Church went first to the tropics and volcanoes of South America. His reasons make a fascinating chapter in the history of American art and thought.
Church was the best known pupil of Thomas Cole, who recognized the singularity of American wilderness landscape and was the first to invest it with heroic grandeur. Church, like other painters of his generation, John Kensett, Sanford R. Gifford, and Jasper Cropsey, sketched and painted the Catskills and mountains of New England. In his early pictures he gave to water a reflective, burnished surface, to sunset clouds dramatic color and substance, and painted distant detail so clearly that his picture space seems filled with transparent radiance. By the early 1850s, Church was not only painting views of specific American places with topographical exactitude, he was also combining separate elements of meticulously detailed scenery into landscapes of heroic breadth and depth.
Church was inspired by the fascinating variety and complexity of nature as extolled by John Ruskin, the English writer, critic, and champion of J. M. W. Turner. Church also believed, like his contemporaries, that close study of nature was essential to grasp unique underlying truths which had moral implications. Thus, he was very impressed by the writings of the German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, whose influential Cosmos: Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe first appeared in English in 1849. Von Humboldt's goal was to synthesize existing scientific knowledge into a theoretical system proving that nature was one great whole animated by internal forces which tended towards harmonious unity. He sought to prove that behind the complexity of the natural world was a divine order and he recognized the importance of landscape art in revealing this order. Von Humboldt specifically encouraged landscape painters to travel to those parts of the world having the greatest botanical and geological variety. Von Humboldt, who had set off for the tropics of South America in 1799, so inspired Church that in 1853 he retraced Humboldt's 1802 route from Barranquilla, in what is now Colombia, to Guayaquil, Ecuador, through the northern Andes where he made sketches of rivers, waterfalls, and volcanoes. One result was The Andes of Ecuador, 4 X 6 feet (1855, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, N.C.), Church's largest painting to date. Seen from a lofty viewpoint, amid rich, tropical vegetation, a river tumbles into a lake which empties into a deep, misty gorge. The gorge leads into the distance and range after range of mountains suffused with a sunlit haze. The depth and breadth are so vast that it may be more accurately called, rather than landscape, earthscape.
With his reputation firmly established by such tropical scenes, Church returned to the tropics in 1857 accompanied by Charles Remy Mignot (1831-1870), a fellow landscape painter from the United States. He landed this time on the coast of Ecuador at Guayaquil and pushed east into the interior to sketch the volcanoes Chimborazo, Cotopaxi, and Sangay. By January, 1858, he had begun his most ambitious, complex, and largest tropical scene, Heart of the Andes, almost 6 X 10 feet (1858, The Metropolitan Museum of Art). Technically brilliant in its detailed rendering of an immensely wide and deep vista, the painting was seen on payment of twenty-five cents by more than twelve thousand people during three weeks in Church's New York studio. The artist brought together into one scene a tropical river flanked by lush dense vegetation, upland plains, and towering mountains, snowcapped at their highest elevation-geographically and climatically more than one region could possibly contain-dazzling in grandeur and mesmerizing in detail.
In 1859, however, Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species turned on its head Humboldt's concept that nature evolved toward harmony as the result of a guiding divine force. According to Darwin the state of nature was competition and struggle, not harmony. Thus was shattered a basic American concept of nature and landscape painting, namely, that man could turn to nature for moral guidance. By the late 1870s, the very ability to detail miles of scenery had become less admired than the creation of poetic visions.
In the 1860s and early 1870s, Church turned away from the crystal clear, meticulously detailed views of vast expanses of the tropics in favor of sunlit landscapes of America, icebergs of the far North, and the coast of Maine. In 1867 he made his first trip to Europe and visited the Middle East, which provided exotic subjects for paintings of the Old World. When he did paint scenes of the tropics in the 1870s, they were quite different in both style and mood, as we se in the Butler Institutes In the Andes of 1878.
The left foreground suggests the generally rich abundance of tropical flora, while the two palm trees convey individual and specific natural histories. This we would expect from Church, but the shadowed foothills and distant violet-gray mountains separated by a layer of yellow cloud and a hazy atmosphere which blurs distant detail reveals a new and different vision. The scope of this view is expansive, but great distance is implied rather than described, and we must draw on our imagination to complete the landscape. In the absence of a single mountain protagonist the wake of a riverboat catches our attention. We feel linked to this human element, which is not lost in a superabundance of botanical and geological detail as in earlier pictures. Light has now become a major concern, and we look into a sun whose dazzle unifies the water of the river, the distant mountains, and the sky into a shimmering whole. The painting has a quiet rather than an epic mood. The setting is exotic, but the mood is pensive. Darwin had injected randomness into nature, hitherto seen as tending toward unity. Church, at the end of his active painting career, like many American painters in the last decades of the nineteenth century, sought through light a poetic unity in place of a scientific one based on a painstaking detailing of the physical world.
WILLIAM S. TALBOT