Frederic Edwin Church (May 4, 1826 – April 7, 1900) was fortunately born into a prosperous family in Hartford, Connecticut, reputable for its genealogical distinction, business and social leadership, and religious piety (Howat, 3). His father, Joseph Church, was a jewelry manufacturer whose lineage traces back to Richard Church, a Puritan pioneer from England who accompanied the Revered Thomas Hooker to augment a new English settlement at Hartford in 1636. Frederic’s mother, Eliza Janes Church, is also a descendent of a distinguished family—daughter of Governor William Bradford of the Plymouth Colony and William Janes, a founder of the New Haven Colony. Frederic grew up in an environment well positioned in his community, accompanied by wealth and loving attention. Throughout this boyhood, he was exposed to the aesthetic ideas about design, drawing, and color from his oil painter uncle Adrian Janes, who sold wallpaper and brushes.
At the age of 18, Frederic Church entered his most important period of artistic and conceptual training he was ever to experience (Howat, 9) when he departed for Caskill, New York, where he became the only important pupil of the famous Thomas Cole (Myers, 23) through an introduction made by a family neighbor. Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, mentored Church with constant contact and infused the attitudes toward nature and art that later interacted with Church’s passion for hiking and traveling.
The Spirituality, Romanticism, and the Second Generation Hudson River School
The Hudson River School was the first well-acknowledged American artistic movement that popularized American landscape paintings initially concentrated in the Hudson Valley. The products of this movement are heavily influenced by Romanticism that originated in Europe as a counter-movement to the Enlightenment ideals of rationality and reason. Rather than depicting orderliness, Romantic era artists often convey the wildness and grandeur of nature that appeal to senses of awe and the sublime by depicting natural landscapes in an idealized way, emphasizing nature’s richness and beauty.
Both Cole and Church are devout Protestants, and Church’s religious and spiritual beliefs played a particular role in his early oil paintings. As a work in the historical context of the Civil War period, Our Banner in the Sky (1861) is a highly expressive and symbolic work that seems to affirm ”his support for the Northern cause and…his sense of its ultimate sanction by God and by Nature” (Wilton, 19). The reddish bars of sunset colors and sprinkling of stars illuminate the night sky, combined visually to echo the Union Flag being embodied in Nature herself. Linking patriotism with the American landscape, Church seems to express the message of spiritual ordinance for a united nation through moral symbols of unity.
In the Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866) oil on canvas, we see these romantic ideals reflected: harmony—whether between man and nature or among all the natural elements of the scenery—flow throughout the painting as a general theme. This harmony is self-sufficient, and there is a “flux of momentary interrelationships rather than separate passages of generalized light and local color” (Huntington, 32); light shines throughout various angles of the painting, and the overall color palette is yellow, warm and consistent. The blending of the sky, the land, and the water shows how these natural creations “exist visually with reference to one another [and that] harmony is derived, not from man’s will, but from nature’s life” (Huntington, 32). The extremely small size of human relative to the surrounding scale of nature is also a most noticeable hallmark of romantic art.
What truly advanced and distinguished Church in his time was his “transition from Cole’s style to his own” (Huntington, 33). After Cole’s premature death in 1848, the second generation of Hudson River School artists, Church being one of the leading figures, rose to prominence whose work is characterized by the style of Luminism. This style exploits effects of light in landscape through aerial perspective and concealing visible brushstrokes. We can see from his famous oil on canvas piece Niagara Falls, from the American Side (1867) the extraordinary detail in the brushstrokes that render them nearly almost invisible. As typical of Luminist landscapes, this painting, despite depicting a massive, grandiose waterfall, actually delivers a sense of tranquility as depicted by a soft, hazy sky with calm and reflective water in the foreground and parts of the background.
Reason for Research
My favorite artistic period is the Romantic era because of the sense of grandness and awe it invokes in me. I love nature and share much of the transcendentalist philosophy in my worldview, and one of my favorite artists is J.M.W. Turner. However, the only Romantic artists that I have been familiar with in the past are usually of European origins, and I hope to learn more about the movement in America—notably the artists of the Hudson River School. I first came across Thomas Cole, the founder of the movement, and later read more about his successful pupil, Frederic Church. I instantly fell in love with Church’s work and was particularly attracted to his use of lighting—which I found out to be a style called Luminism.
Howat, John K. Frederic Church. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005. Print.
Huntington, David C. The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of An American Era. New York: George Braziller, 1966. Print.
[Photos 2 & 3] Kelly, Franklin, et. al. Frederic Edwin Church. Washington: National Gallery of Art and the Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989. Print.
Myers, Kenneth John. Introduction. Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Edwin Church’s Views from Olana. Hudson: The Olana Partnership, 2009. Print.
[Photo 1] Wilton, Andrew. Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch. London: National Gallery Company, 2013. Print.