His Home Is His Castle

John Haber
in New York City

Frederic Edwin Church

America has a problem with visionaries. In politics and religion, they announce a millennial future, while clinging to an imagined past that never existed. Sometimes at least, great artists do the same.

When Romanticism crossed the Atlantic, did it burden American art with already faded traditions, or did it open access to the new world? Frederic Edwin Church makes the question inescapable. In the culminating decade of the Hudson River School, he built a castle high above the river, while creating canvases with a compositional breadth that anticipates late Modernism. He alters the scene before him, for a transcendental theater increasingly quaint even in its his time, while bringing the artist into the cast as creatively as an avant-garde painter some decades later. Study for Twilight in the Wilderness (National Academy Museum, 1858)

At the start of the century after Modernism, two exhibitions wrestled with Church's place between remote past and present. In 2006, "Treasures from Olana" makes it difficult to separate Church from his private fantasies. Just over five years before, a gallery made almost the same majestic error in reverse. "In Search of the Promised Land" assimilates a great American Romantic into modern art. But what a pleasure he becomes.

The gap between Romanticism and formalism could almost by itself define modern art, and the embrace of both as alternative forms of theater could almost define art now. Does that make Church more or less of a stranger? Let me see if some small-scale works can bring him closer.

The theater manager

I once ended a review of David Smith on a personal note, with a vision of his sculpture at sunset. Spreading across the grounds of Storm King Art Center, it went far beyond even his own 1951 Hudson River Landscape. However, that vision came on my way home from yet another artistic pilgrimage, in search of the greater glories of the Hudson River School. I had shared a weekend drive north, to the home of F. E. Church. Dare I call it a disappointment—or at least an irony worth savoring for a long time to come?

Instead of the most ambitious landscape painting in American history, I saw only modest sketches, displayed in as perfunctory a manner as in a private home. The master of meticulous foregrounds, Church worked in oil even on paper, did little to hide his brushstrokes, and glossed over greenery right before his eyes. The creator of panoramic vistas stretching to the very edge of a canvas, he showed on paper a fondness for the largest mountain, tree, or rock at a compositional dead center. The painter whose crisp, bright skies serve as a missing link between the generations of Thomas Cole, his teacher, and of Winslow Homer, he kept just one large, finished painting, oddly dark and even in tone. The man who took such care to build a castle high above the Hudson, he appeared largely uninterested in the scene right before his eyes.

Strangest of all, he had built for himself a fantasy right out of pulp fiction. Church can seem modern even by the standards of the Hudson River School for his avoidance of formula: like Cole, the group's founder, he does not specialize in any one thing, however beautiful—unlike, for example, John Kensett's scumbled rock faces, Jasper Cropsey's autumn foliage, Sanford Robinson Gifford's hazy afternoon light, the river for George Caleb Bingham, or the tropical intensity of Martin Johnson Heade's flowers. He seems modern, too, for his anticipation of what critics a hundred years later were to embrace as all-over painting. Here, however, he sought a pretend Persian palace. From its heavily decorated, slightly Romanesque arches to rusticated stones vying with an incredible view out onto the river, it places Church firmly in Romanticism or a still more exotic past.

What else should I have expected? Obviously museums and private collectors long ago snatched up my favorite paintings, and Olana did serve him as a private home like any other. And he does mark the climax of a Romantic movement, before others intensified the scales of distance and color to the point of falsity, while buyers after the Civil War started to develop other tastes. The sketches help place Church within his time, not the time of Dia:Beacon along the same river. Just as important, too, they help establish his working methods. One could see both at the quiet and conservative National Academy Museum just weeks before the National Academy Annual, with loans from Olana while the site takes care of some necessary recovery.

This time, I did not leave disappointed, even without Heart of the Andes from the Met and even in a museum destined to sell one of its own Church landscapes. In part, the show clearly has modest aims, and the sketches look better in a museum setting, too. One can concentrate on just how much his light gets things right, and one gets a look at preparatory work for pretty much all his workhorses, even a painting now presumed lost. Obviously he traveled widely, notably in earlier years but also later to escape New York winters. One also gets a better sense of his range, with even a winter scene. The occasional close-up, such as a small patch of sky or a cluster of rocks and foliage, look particularly fresh. Moreover, the Romanticism—evident in the sketches as well as the castle—says a great deal about how Church thought.

The finished paintings create the sensation of continuity, from the very small to the very large, from creeping undergrowth to geologic history, much like Carleton Watkins in photography. However, the sketches tend to focus on one dramatic landscape feature. It may stand out because foreground detail does not obscure it yet—or even, paradoxically, because of a more literal point of view. Church has not yet placed the viewer a bit higher than in nature, so naturally cliffs really loom. I always knew Church as a theater manager, the man who charged admission to displays of a painting, in lowered light and at times with real plants set out in front. Now one can see that, while sketching often shows a painter closer to nature, before piling on the drama, Church in a sense starts with the drama, giving it only later the illusion of nature.

Romanticism brought up-to-date

Where Olana's Romantic landscape subordinates nature to Church's private world, the three dozen paintings at Berry-Hill in 2000 focus on the artist's place in his vision. The exhibition groups the work not by date but by subject matter, a popular curatorial quirk as art exited less than gracefully from the twentieth century, hoping desperately for an escape from the forward march of traditional at history. For example, an interesting mini-show at the Modern played with connections between Walker Evans and modern artists in other media. Whereas Walker Evans in his photographs brings out the deadpan side of ordinary things, Berry-Hill takes on Church's fascination with the rising sun. He made monuments of man or nature float up into the sky.

Church never toys with scale, but again he alters scenes, and the show makes even clearer why he often seeks a vantage point where no one could really stand. Asher B. Durand had done much the same earlier in the Hudson River School, but with far less drama. With Church, the actor comes to the fore alongside the grander subject. That self-awareness became a hallmark of modern art. It makes one forget for the moment pioneering American art from 1900, like that of Thomas Eakins, that never quite makes it into Modernism's canon. Ironically, Berry-Hill exits the art scene for good the very month of the Olana loans, as if to take the canon with it.

In traditional painting, the point of view was fixed, outside the scene. In contrast, Church subtly enters his world. In one painting, he in fact paints a Biblical revelation, Mount Sinai. There is no escaping Moses, the most privileged observer ever, as a tiny point in a larger scene. Naturally enough, the gallery calls this show "In Search of the Promised Land." Could that promised land stand not just for America, but for the next century?

In Church's art, a deeply red sun or icy mountain loom up, apart from the foreground but pressed down by the weight and color of clouds or the ash spewed from Cotopaxi, a volcano in the Andes. In the change from a sketch of the Parthenon to the finished painting, mere tourists vanish from its pillars. The blue, shadowed foreground takes on more gray, and the placement of the observer shifts as well—all so that the distant monument will loom more intensely. Compared to a Romantic like John Constable, who carefully adds tiny people to a final canvas, he shouts at the top of his lungs. Yet like Constable, too, he could no longer detach himself from what he saw.

The show makes it hard to spot Church's evolution, for one easily believes, mistakenly, that scenes from one place arose at the same time. One misses his growth from a clear, flattening light taken from Thomas Cole, to a precision in drawing, and ultimately to a soft light, surpassing even that of Sanford Robinson Gifford, that holds in place these dramas of experience. That includes his unmatched care in reconstructing nature tree by tree and cloud by cloud, as if eternally in search of a point of revelation. Conversely, it should also include works missing here, such as Twilight in the Wilderness, that dissolve any one point of light into epic theater.

Romanticism at once celebrated and challenged the need for spiritual insight. It knew traditional genres inside-out, and it did battle over what they saw. It rediscovered painting's age-old legacy and the light within as revelation. Church tempts one to confuse it all with a modernist approach to painting in series, starting with those haystacks and cathedrals by Claude Monet. It loses some of the story, in favor of a hymn to Modernism's deadpan vision. But what a hymn, and I wish that I could have heard it in some small corner of the bustling art world today.

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"Treasures from Olana" ran at the National Academy Museum through April 30, 2006. "Frederic Edwin Church: In Search of the Promised Land" ran at Berry-Hill gallery through July 15, 2000.


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