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The Hudson River School: Frederick Edwin Church

Frederick Edwin Church was born in Hartford, Connecticut. His father was a jeweler and banker who eventually became an official and director of The Aetna Life Insurance Company. His grandfather owned the first paper mill in Lee, Massachusetts.

The family’s wealth gave him the opportunity to pursue his interest in art from an early age. When he was 18, his father (with help) persuaded the noted America landscape painter Thomas Cole to accept him as a student (1844 – 1846). Church studied with Cole in Catskill, New York, after which he established a studio in New York City.

Church traveled and sketched not only in the Hudson River Valley, but also in New England (with Cole), South America (1853, 1857), the North Atlantic (1860), and the Middle East (1867). The products of his travels quickly earned him a reputation as one of the nation’s leading landscape painters. Unlike Asher Durand or Thomas Cole, who stressed true-to-scene painting and allegorical landscapes respectively, Church synthesized his sketches into epic compositions. Using canvas of 5 by 10 feet or greater, he introduced Americans and Europeans to the natural beauty of the western hemisphere.

Like the other landscape artists in the mid-nineteenth century, Church was a product of his times. Major influences, reflected in his art, include the concept of Manifest Destiny, Romanticism, Prussian explorer/scientist Alexander Humbolt (who wrote on the link between science, the natural world and religion) and English art critic John Ruskin (who urged precision in detail of each element in a landscape). He was an ardent naturalist and had “the finest eye for drawing in the world.” according to his teacher Thomas Cole.

Church earned his reputation after the showing of Niagara, a seven foot wide canvas showing the falls from an original perspective. The breadth, color and composition of the work astonished viewers in New York and the UK.

landscape painting Niagara by FE Church
F.E. Church - Niagara

His most noted work is Heart of the Andes, a 5 by 10 foot canvas he created after his travels to South America. The work, completed in 1859 occasioned the most widely attended showing of a single piece of artwork in the Civil War era. The finished canvas was placed in a window-like frame in a darkened room, with potted palms on each side for added realism; several lines of backless benches filled the remainder of the room. New Yorkers (many of whom brought opera glasses for the event) paid 25 cents each for a 30 minute viewing session. In the course of three weeks the showing earned Church $3,000, after which he sold the painting for the unheard of price of $10,000.

Landscape paipnting Heart of the Andes by FE Church
F.E. Church - Heart of the Andes

Heart of the Andes inspires me, at times, to take more creative license in my photography. There is nowhere in South America where you can stand and see that scene, and the scene itself is absolutely beautiful. If Church can synthesize stunning artwork from sketches he made … what can I create from multiple images taken of a scene? Most of the time I’m an Asher B. Durand kind of guy … the final image is what I saw when I was there (wherever there happened to be). Every now and then, though, I look at a scene and try to compose the way I think Church might. And unless you’ve been to where I set my tripod, your only reaction to my composition (hopefully) will be one of delight and appreciation.

Be well and stay safe.



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