Frederick Edwin Church

The works of American painter Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900) marked the culmination of romantic landscape painting in America and the final great expression of the group of artists identified as the Hudson River school.

Frederick Edwin Church was born in Hartford, Conn., into a prominent family. At an early age he decided to become an artist. He studied for a short time with Benjamin Coe, then went to Catskill, N.Y., in 1844 to study with Thomas Cole, one of the foremost painters of the Hudson River school. Though Cole died 4 years later, Church had already formed his style in the tradition of his master. He wished to travel and he read with interest Kosmos, a book by the young German scientist Alexander von Humboldt. This description of a 4-year trip to unexplored areas of Latin America inspired Church, who went to Ecuador and Colombia in 1853 and again in 1857. On these trips Church made many beautifully executed pencil drawings, which he later worked up into paintings showing detailed tropical foliage with Mt. Cotopaxi or Mt. Chimborazo in the distance.

In the summer of 1859 Church went to Labrador with Cole's biographer. Church was impressed by the dramatic aspect of icebergs and made many sketches. In 1865 he went to Jamaica and once again enjoyed sketching in a tropical environment. On his first trip to Europe, in 1868, he visited the Bavarian Alps, Italy, and Greece, as well as Palestine and Syria. A remarkable series of small oil sketches gives a pictorial account of these travels and indicates a very important side of his work, for they have a brilliance and spontaneity often lacking in his large canvases. Church made full use of his sense of the dramatic when depicting grandiose scenery. He had a remarkable feeling for light and atmosphere. His vividly painted sunsets seem almost explosive and anticipate 20th-century expressionism.

When he returned to America, Church built "Olana," a large country house on a mountaintop commanding an unsurpassed view of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains beyond. This semi-Moorish structure designed by the artist with the help of the architect Calvert Vaux has been preserved as a museum. Here Church assembled paintings collected in Italy, Turkish carpets, Moorish tiles, and Near Eastern brass. After subsequent trips to Mexico, he added religious paintings and pre-Columbian sculpture and terra-cottas. Some paintings by Cole and some of Church's own hang in the house.

Church was enormously successful as a painter in his own time, and he amassed a considerable fortune. However, he was crippled by arthritis and unable to paint during the last 20 years of his life.


Further Reading on Frederick Edwin Church

David C. Huntington, The Landscapes of Frederick Edwin Church (1966), is a sympathetic study of the man and his art and is the only critical work. Frederick A. Sweet, The Hudson River School and the Early American Landscape Tradition (1945), includes a short discussion of Church. Further background material is in Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (1949; rev. ed. 1960).