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America's Michelangelo

January 27, 2016

Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900) is not a name that springs to mind in a discussion of great American painters, yet there was a time when he was considered the Michelangelo of American landscape painters.


A member of the Hudson River School, Church began his career by painting rural America at a time when our country’s natural beauty was first beginning to be celebrated in art. Church came from a wealthy family and never struggled to make a living; at eighteen he became the youngest associate of the National Academy of Design. Unlike his mentor Thomas Cole and other Hudson River painters who focused on American landscapes, Church grew restless and traveled the world for visual eye candy, incredible panoramas and vistas sure to stir the soul and imagination. Few Americans traveled at the time and these canvases drew much attention. Church was a highly spiritual individual, remaining so even after his first two children died of diphtheria, and he continually professed to see the face of God in nature.


During his travels, he painted small sketches for use in massive compositions created in his studio, some as large as fifteen by twenty feet. At special showings, people paid to see his canvases and study the incredible details through opera glasses. Church even brought exotic plants and flowers along to reinforce the subject matter and enhance the experience. When Church did sell his paintings, they went for as much as twelve thousand dollars, a remarkable sum in the 1870s/80s, making him the highest paid painter in America.




Heart of the Andes as it was displayed to the public in 1859.



At the height of his fame, Church purchased land in the Hudson Valley and created a Persian-inspired estate he called Olana, based on examples of exotic architecture he admired while traveling through the Middle East.




Olana on the Hudson



Church had long since fallen out of favor by the time he passed away in 1900 at the age of seventy-three. His paintings were mostly forgotten as modern art took over. Perhaps color photography would have kept Church in the public eye, but his work was less than impressive in black and white photography.


Today Church’s paintings sell for large sums and he’s well represented in museums across the country; his Horseshoe Falls at Niagara (1857) won a prize in Paris and was later purchased by the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.




Niagara Falls (1857)






When I was a child I saw Rainy Season in the Tropics (1866) at the De Young Museum in San Francisco, and never forgot it.






Twilight in the Wilderness (1860)





 Icebergs fascinated Church and this late painting (1891) has served as my screensaver for several years.






Cotopaxi (1862). This depiction of a stratovolcano in Ecuador might have provided inspiration for Mordor.






The Parthenon (1871)




These pictures don’t do justice to Church’s work and I hope you’ll Google him to see better images of these magnificent paintings.




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I always like my little art lesson from you and sometimes I get lucky enough to be in a gallery where the knowledge gets re-inforced! REgarding your question on binge watching...I watched the series "The Killing" very noir, but not creep so. The characters are all flawed and I just want to take them home and "fic" them. The other is about a flawed southern family in Florida and I am mid-way through it called "Bloodline" which has a pretty stellar cast and is once again character driven. Then I also watch Poirot, which I have seen forever!.
By: Tabor on January 27, 2016
That is supposed to be 'fix' them!!!
By: Tabor on January 27, 2016
I've never heard of this guy but his work is stunningly beautiful.
By: Rick Watson on January 27, 2016
Fascinating! I can't imagine 12K back in the 1870's & 80's. He painted the Canadian, Horseshoe Falls... as you stated, he sought out the world's eye candy. You have a telling fondness for his work.
By: Daniel LaFrance on January 27, 2016
Thank you professor Chatterbox. As always I enjoy your Art Appreciation Class.
By: cranky on January 27, 2016
Isn't it interesting that his paintings sold for a staggering amount of money (12,000 then would be a gazillion today, right?) only to fall out of favor in the public eye. I always learn something interesting from you.
By: Cheryl P. on January 27, 2016
I've seen his work before. The realism is impressive.
By: Alex J. Cavanaugh on January 27, 2016
I'm with Cranky--"As always I enjoy your Art Appreciation Class!!"
By: fishducky on January 27, 2016
was not familiar with him, so thanks for the education!
By: TexWisGirl on January 27, 2016
I have always loved the Hudson River School style of painting and especially Fredrick Church's gorgeous works of art. Sublime. Every once in a while I manage to capture that style in my photos. Thanks for your art history lesson- I have missed them! Hope all is going well with you and your family-especially CJ.
By: Kathe W. on January 27, 2016
I always like your Art History lessons. I have never heard of Mr. Church but his paintings are gorgeous. I love the details so real it looks like a photo.I can see why he was so popular back then.
By: Linda on January 27, 2016
Fascinating. I've seen plates of his work but knew very little about him. Excellent post, intellectual and visual nutrition.
By: Tom Cochrun on January 27, 2016
Now, his style is what I call fine art! It is certainly a sad commentary upon modern values when a Jackson Pollock can be celebrated while a Frederick Church can be forgotten.
By: Jerry E. Beuterbaugh on January 27, 2016
Wish you had been my Art Appreciation instructor. I haven't heard of him but really like his work. He makes one feel like they are right there at the perfect time of day.
By: Arkansas Patti on January 27, 2016
I know it's a cliche but painters become more famous and rich after they die.
By: red on January 27, 2016
My grandmother lived for many years in the Hudson River Valley. She lived in Cornwall-on-the Hudson and her home faced the Hudson River although from up higher. The area was just beautiful with some breathtaking scenery. I'm so glad I got to spend a good part of my childhood in the Valley. I can see why it was and still is a painters delight. Great post. Thanks!
By: Bouncin Barb on January 27, 2016
What amazing talent!
By: messymimi on January 27, 2016
They are beautiful paintings ... and all I can think about is how he had the advantage of wealth so he could go wherever he wanted to paint, but that also meant he was rewarded with wealth for his paintings of exotic places! It takes money to make money seems so often to be true. Still, he WAS good.
By: jenny_o on January 27, 2016
Those paintings are quite breathtaking. And I mean "breathtaking" in the conventional way, not the Seinfeld way.
By: Val on January 27, 2016
Amazing images!
By: John on January 27, 2016
Thanks for this post. I had completely forgotten about Church (and the Hudson River School) from my school (university) days.
By: Mitchell Is Moving on January 28, 2016
Wow, never heard of Church, and there's some some great stuff here. I think you may inspire me to go see Olana sometime next summer ... it's less than two hours from my house.
By: Tom Sightings on January 28, 2016
I always learn something cool when I stop by here, Stephen. I'll look up the Parthenon, as I don't remember much about it from classes.
By: Michael Manning on January 28, 2016
I'd never heard of Church, either, but I like his pictures!
By: Pixel Peeper on January 28, 2016

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