Frederic Edwin Church | Painting the New World

Under Niagara, 1862 (chromolithograph) by Frederick Edwin Church. painting, southwest art.
Under Niagara, 1862 (chromolithograph) by Frederick Edwin Church

By Gerald L. Carr

Frederic Edwin Church [1826-1900] was the best-known student of Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole and one of the country’s preeminent painters of the New World. More than 40 paintings by Church are on view through January 3, 2001, at the Portland Art Museum, OR, in the exhibit In Search of the Promised Land—the first survey of Church’s career in nearly four decades. Following is an excerpt from the exhibit catalog by Gerald L. Carr.

Frederic Edwin Church’s North America was physically extensive. His lifetime travels encompassed the eastern half of the country, parts of the Southwest, southeastern Canada, and much of south-central Mexico. Outside of Mexico, however, his artistic North America was a good deal narrower. Perhaps because other painters were making it their forte during the 1850s, Church was not lured by the far West. The artist’s early biographer, Henry Theodore Tuckerman, astutely declared that his friend exemplified “the New England mind pictorially developed.” The phrase encapsulates Church’s artistic North America. With one notable exception—his painting of the Natural Bridge in Virginia—Church restricted his studio output of United States subjects to New York State and New England, spilling over into Canada.

Niagara Falls was the nexus of Church’s greatest artistic success. He visited it at least four times twice in 1856, once in 1858, and again in 1875. Each of his three major studio paintings of the subject, produced at five-year intervals, depicted the site from a differing vantage point.

Church’s images of the falls depict nature in flux. The depicted motion, observable day or night in all seasons and weather, is ground-based—continuous, clamorous, and grandiloquently American. By the 1850s, many Americans beheld the falls as an emblem of national destiny. Despite its immensity, however, Niagara was increasingly perceived as endangered by outside human intrusions and infirmity. By the mid-1860s the whole site was believed to have become geologically unstable, and collapse was forecast for the horseshoe falls. The worst-case scenario therefore held that one of North America’s mightiest natural symbols carried within itself the seeds of self-destruction. A few years later those accumulating fears spurred the creation of Niagara Park, in which effort Church was crucially involved. More than others of their day, Church’s paintings of Niagara were seen as documents that posterity might consult about the falls’ halcyon countenance.

Church’s Under Niagara is today relatively little known. During the 1860s, however, it had a decent following. In September 1858, Church had persuaded the captain of The Maid of the Mist to venture near the southeast corner of the horseshoe falls and hold the vessel there for an hour, to the discomfort of other passengers. The artist wanted to sketch the scene en plein air. The principal product was a vigorous oil study. Four years later, in a burst of activity, he painted the large-scale studio picture within a day’s time. At that juncture, Church’s indoor painting process re-created the spontaneity of his outdoor experience. A short while later his agent sent the finished canvas to London for chromolithography. The horizontal scene takes us nearly beneath the tons of leaping, frothing water. We look up at a liquid avalanche bulked from the Great Lakes, tumbling onto megaboulders within yards of our location.

Today, Church’s reputation is reascendant. He ranks with top 19th-century American artists including Thomas Eakins, George Inness, Winslow Homer, and a crew of Hudson River School landscapists that includes his teacher, Thomas Cole. Today, exhibits of his works attract eager audiences on both sides of the Atlantic, and auction sales of his paintings—relatively scarce items on the market—inspire high bids from museums and collectors. Church’s spirited color studies, reserved during his lifetime for the delectation of privileged connoisseurs, claim a modern following of their own.

Featured in December 2000