There are few American painters who were as celebrated, successful, or influential as Frederic Edwin Church.
by M. Stephen Doherty
|Twilight, a Sketch
by Frederic Edwin Church, 1858, oil,
8¼ x 12¼. Collection Olana
State Historic Site,
Hudson, New York.
There are few American painters who were as celebrated, successful, or influential as Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900). While many of his contemporaries died broke, discredited, or forgotten, Church managed to live a prosperous life until the end of an era that was shaped by his influence on artists, collectors, and museums. That influence continues today through frequent exhibitions, scholarly catalogues, and illustrated books. Even now there are major exhibitions that include his drawings and paintings as well as several books still in print that describe his painting techniques and the ways he managed his successful career.
Church’s influence isn’t based on his having been an innovative painter or an active teacher. Instead, it emanates from his powerfully executed paintings of both well-known sites and exotic locations; from his influence as a founder of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City, and as a member of the National Academy, also in New York City; and from the efforts of collectors to make a vast number of his sketches available to art students.
Church’s method of developing large studio pictures was typical of most 19th-century artists. He made detailed graphite drawings and oil sketches on location and acquired photographs of those scenes to compose oil paintings in his New York studio. He even went so far as to paint over someone else’s photographic prints to compose his most popular painting of Niagara Falls. What helped Church stand out in the crowd of painters was his instinct for establishing arresting compositions, his preference for dramatic lighting and intriguing details, and his brilliant marketing strategies.
|The Urn Tomb, Silk Tomb,
and Corinthian Tomb, Petra
by Frederic Edwin Church, 1861,
oil on paper mounted
onto canvas, 13 x 20?.
Collection Olana State Historic
Site, Hudson, New York.
Church’s Dependence on Drawings & Oil Sketches
Art historian Elaine Evans Dee offered a complete explanation of Church’s process in a catalogue titled Frederic E. Church: Under Changing Skies, which accompanied a 1992 exhibition of oil sketches and drawings from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design, Smithsonian Institution. “Frederic Church’s approach to his art was direct, intellectual, and practical,” wrote Dee. “He studied nature at first hand and prided himself on translating what he saw to paper and canvas. He selected for the pictures he painted in his studio those aspects of his drawings that best suited their composition, but only after he had educated himself thoroughly about the subject through every means at his command. Drawings formed the basis of Church’s art.
|Books & Catalogues on Frederic Edwin Church
Frederic E. Church: Under Changing Skies, by Elaine Evans Dee
(produced by Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia)
Frederic Edwin Church: In Search of the Promised Land, by Gerald L. Carr (University Press of New England, Durham, New Hampshire, and Berry-Hill Galleries, New York, New York)
The Painted Sketch: American Impressions From Nature 1830–1880, by Eleanor Jones Harvey (Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas)
American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820–1880, by Andrew Wilton and T.J. Barringer (Tate Gallery Publishing, a division of Tate Enterprise, Milbank, London, England)
“His preferred medium for drawing was graphite (pencil) in various hardnesses,” Dee continued. “Pen and ink rarely appear and watercolor almost never. Graphite often occurs in conjunction with white gouache, particularly on dark papers. The white gouache was used to highlight or to define form and was especially suitable for clouds, water, and ice. The papers range in size from three and one-half inches by four and one-half inches to fourteen inches by twenty-two inches. Sometimes he joined two large sheets together in order to draw a kind of panorama. The papers are of a variety of types and colors; gray-green is the most common. Like those used by most of his artist contemporaries in America, they are machine-made wove.
by Frederic Edwin Church, 1856–1857,
oil on two pieces of paper,
joined together, mounted
onto canvas, 11½ x 35?.
Collection Olana State
Historic Site, Hudson,
“Church had seen his teacher Thomas Cole [1801–1848] making oil sketches on occasion, but, more than any other artist of the period, Church exploited the format to the fullest,” Dee asserted. “Church never transferred an oil sketch directly to a large canvas; he referred to several drawings and oil sketches and extracted from each of them the details that were combined in the final painting to make up the whole. The sketches were experiments, a process of learning about the subject.
“Church became remarkably adept at making quick studies, often in adverse circumstances of climate or bodily discomfort, but he also turned to the format of the oil sketch to work out the final composition of a large oil. By and large he did not expect to sell them.
“The oil sketches were done on cardboard, occasionally on canvas or paper, and most often on very thin cream-colored board,” Dee explained. “In the early oil sketches Church coated the board with a dark salmon red ground that helped to create the illusion of the solidity and density of the image. As he moved away from studies of specifics of nature to a broader concept of atmosphere and light, he changed the ground color to white.”
|The Hudson Valley in
Winter From Olana
by Frederic Edwin Church,
1871–1872, oil on paper mounted
onto canvas, 20¼ x 13.
Collection Olana State Historic
Site, Hudson, New York.
Art historians, curators, and practicing artists have the benefit of knowing these details about Church’s technique because he wrote extensively about his inspirations and methodology, he saved a great many of his sketches and photographs, and his children donated or sold a massive collection of his material to the Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum of Design. The New York-based institution holds more than 3,000 drawings, photographs, and oil sketches by Church, most of which were purchased by sisters Sarah Cooper Hewitt, Eleanor Garnier Hewitt, and Amelia Hewitt to establish a teaching museum affiliated with The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, a school founded by their grandfather, Peter Cooper.
Church: the Consummate Self-Promoter
Historian Gail S. Davidson wrote an informative essay for the Cooper-Hewitt exhibition catalogue in which she explained why Church was so much more successful in promoting his work than contemporaries who painted some of the same subjects. Davidson points specifically to the series of drawings, oil sketches, and studio pictures that ultimately led to the creation of one of Church’s most famous paintings, Niagara (Collection The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC).
“If Church ignored in his pictures the tourists and tourist traps that had invaded the cataract, he certainly was not oblivious to collectors and the fine-arts audience who would have understood his intentions in painting his monumental canvas,” Davidson wrote. “In fact, Church’s entrepreneurial savvy, like that of Winslow Homer and Thomas Moran, equaled the promotional skills of Niagara’s real-estate and hotel developers. In an unprecedented venture, the artist, before completing the Corcoran picture, placed the Olana preparatory sketch with other Niagara oil sketches on view in his studio in December 1856 to maximize the press coverage for his project and whet the appetite of potential buyers. Subsequently, instead of following the usual procedure of exhibiting a major work at the National Academy, he chose a more newsworthy route by selling the painting along with the publication rights directly to the New York dealers Williams, Stevens, and Williams.
|Olana, Church’s home on the Hudson, in New York.
|Sunset Across the Hudson Valley
by Frederic Edwin Church, 1870,
graphite and oil on thin,
11? x 15¼. Collection
Cooper-Hewitt, National Museum
of Design, New York, New York.
“Skillfully marketing the picture between 1858 and 1859 in U.S. and British exhibitions, the gallery also commissioned a chromolithograph from London printmakers Risdon & Day to be sold along the tour,” Davidson explained. “Public response to the seven-foot-long, three-and-one-half-foot-high panorama of Horseshoe Falls was explosive. For the thousands of viewers and print purchasers in England and in U.S. cities from New York to New Orleans, Church’s Niagara supplanted Niagara itself as the symbol of America, and helped establish the artist’s reputation as the greatest living landscapist. At the last minute, the 1857 picture was included in the American display in the Paris 1867 Exposition Universelle, where its symbolism and virtuoso technique created a sensation.”
Other artists tried the same scheme of creating large paintings of dramatic scenes or historic events and then presented them both in touring exhibitions and chromolithographic prints, but none were as successful in grabbing the public’s attention and appreciation. Once Impressionism became the dominant painting style in America and Europe, great painters such as Jasper Francis Cropsey (1823–1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) lost their fortunes while Church preserved his wealth and his influence.
M. Stephen Doherty is the editor-in-chief of American Artist.