The landscape blockbusters of Frederic Edwin Church

51KQR790DFL._SX385_On the 4th of May 1826, American landscapist Frederic Edwin Church was born in Hartford, Connecticut. He was a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters, combining natural sciences with a spiritual dimension in his works. Early on, Church dropped his teacher Thomas Cole’s predilection for allegory, in favour of a more accurate exploration of the sublime grandiosity of the natural landscape. He continued the tradition of American pastoral settings, captured in minute detail and imbued with romantic qualities, a style meant to capture the wild realism of an unsettled America before its disappearance and the awe felt by the viewer/explorer upon finding it. The whole idea was though to glimpse at these majestic vistas undisturbed by human presence; in these open and empty scenes, the horizon lay low and the sky dominated the picture. The brushstrokes were eliminated by careful overworking offering these landscapes a photographic quality.

Church travelled a lot. He took two important trips to South America (1853, 1857) staying predominantly in Quito, Ecuador, possibly spurred on by the German geographer Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos (about “the Earth, matter, and space”) and his exploration of the continent in the early 1800s. Reading his treaty, Church was  eager to capture from various angles a holistic “physiognomy” of the Andes. His work from these expeditions proved most popular. “By 1859, Church’s audience included some twelve thousand people, guidebooks in hand, each of whom paid twenty-five cents to see The Heart of the Andes. They came to witness the artist’s painterly bravado and to contemplate the powerful blend of religious and scientific solace he provided. Kevin Avery begins his contribution to Treasures from Olana with a nod to Steven Spielberg. The reference is apt, for71pfbHnlQEL._SL1500_Church shares much in common with the film director: both men tend to seize an already popular cultural subject-Niagara Falls and arctic exploration in one case, slave revolts and D-Day in the other-and then attack it with breathtaking technical mastery and just a little too much aw-shucks sentimentality. Church’s dramatic Niagara (1857) is a case in point. He situates the viewer at the falls’ dangerous edge, defined by thickly painted rushing water and affording not an inch of foreground to hold on to. Church turns Victorian America’s tritest natural monument into a dazzling spectacle. And an uplifting one as well: a rainbow, glittering in the upper left corner of the canvas, redeems Niagara’s destructive powers by recalling the promise of Genesis. Church’s viewers never failed to catch such correspondences, and they loved him for providing them. “Like . .. any artist who becomes both great and popular,” notes critic Robert Hughes, Church didn’t reach “his position by figuring out what the public wanted and then giving it to them. He wanted what the public wanted, and was rewarded by its unstinting gratitude.” (Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Knopf, 1997). In that sense, Church’s most important paintings-Niagara, The Heart of the Andes, The Icebergs, Twilight in the Wilderness-should be thought of not as masterpieces but as blockbusters.” (Christopher Capozzola, reviews in The New England Quarterly, Vol. 79, No. 3, Sep., 2006). 

Like Steven Spielberg and his sci-fi blockbusters in the 20th century, Church was the creative wizard of his era. In the mid 19th century, the public would form interminable queues around the artist’s 10th Street studio to witness his latest big productions. Several writers have pointed out that Spielberg’s scenic style literally owes something to Church and his painting “El Khasne, Petra”.51xvRDvn5HL._SX385_ The sets of the director’s Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade were actually designed in imitation of the Church masterpiece! This is how Church described Petra over a century before: There are the most wonderful rock colors here that I ever saw – The Khasne is a pretty uniform [hue]–but usually the most gorgeous colors blend in waving stripes, crossed by bars of varied tints[.]  The most astonishing effects are produced, especially in the cutting of the Tombs […]–purple shades into varied tints of red and orange purple […], perhaps a rich orange blending into yellow follows with white edging.  […] Certainly I never saw anything so gorgeous.”