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He was a master of the brush: Frederic Edwin Church’s Catskill Creek.

Beyond the Valley
By David Brickman

Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church

Fenimore Art Museum, through Sept. 16

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was one of the most revered, influential and successful artists of his time. The successor to Hudson River school founder Thomas Cole (who took Church on as his first student) was a master with the brush, a brilliant businessman, and an insatiable traveler who eventually settled down in his dream house, dubbed Olana, on 250 orchestrated acres south of Hudson.

The traveling exhibition Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church, currently at its first stop at the Fenimore Art Museum, presents 18 works from Church’s personal collection, and augments them with a number of other pieces borrowed from museums and individuals. It is accompanied by a small but lavishly illustrated catalog featuring an insightful and cogent essay by the show’s curator (and Metropolitan Museum of Art associate) Kevin J. Avery; the exhibit’s label copy, drawn from Avery’s essay, is just one excellent reason to make the trip to Cooperstown.

Another is that, while the works from Olana could be seen on visits there, at the Fenimore one has the opportunity to focus entirely on the art—what’s lost by removing the Olana context, with all its romance, is more than made up for by full and easy access to up-close scrutiny of the work, an impossibility during Church house tours. And the work, needless to say, is marvelous.

Most of the pieces in the show are not large, finished paintings; rather, they are highly polished oil sketches, relatively small and intimate. And this is their strength. As evidenced by the few examples of full-scale finished work in the show, the sketches retain a freshness and intensity that is, frankly, lacking in the easel pieces. And don’t be misled by the label “sketch”—Church’s skill was such that even these little oils on paper make the vast majority of paintings made by today’s artists seem primitive and fumbling in comparison.

Also, don’t think that these are discards and leftovers—they were chosen, framed and hung in the house by Church himself as his favorites to live with and share with his wife, Isabel, and their children. And, by the way, those frames are fabulous.

The first strong impression I got from strolling around the gallery to get oriented is what a vast geography Church painted. Sure, there are familiar scenes of the Catskill Creek, the Hudson River and Niagara Falls, but then there’s the Parthenon in Greece; sunsets in Jamaica; rock formations and manmade wonders at Petra in Jordan; a gorgeous, partially fabricated view of Mount Katahdin in Maine; a rainbow in Germany; the Mexican forest; and sites in South America.

I’d be hard-pressed to pick my own favorite, but Blueberry Hill, Vermont, painted in 1865, would be a contender. Unlike the vast, sweeping panoramas typical of Church’s most famous work, this 12-by-20-inch oil features an undistinguished hump of a mountain sheltering a cozy valley; the sky is a clear, pale blue but the colors of fall are on the landsape, and Church has captured them in seemingly every leaf and branch. Sun, shadow and fallen leaves play across the foreground, while minute details of a farmhouse, fences and livestock activate the middle ground. A soft light falling across the contours of the fields and hill behind makes for a comforting yet technically brilliant effect, the coup de grace of a remarkable picture.

Similarly muscular forms grace Scene in the Blue Mountains, Jamaica, also painted in 1865, but in a sketchier manner that suits the subject well. Hanging near it is a far more lush work on paper titled Tropical Vines and Trees, Jamaica, in which Church has lavished an unbelievable degree of skill and attention on his unassuming subject. The accompanying label speculates that this excessive absorption gave the artist temporary relief from grieving for his two children, who were killed by diphtheria a couple of months earlier. It is also suggested that, in painting every leaf, he was communing with his equally bereft wife, who drowned her sorrows by obsessively collecting fern specimens.

Once back at Olana for ongoing construction supervision (and with four new children), Church in 1871-2 made another of the show’s best paintings: a winter view, and a vertical one at that, creating poetry out of crisp light, scudding clouds, lavender snow, and the river and mountains in the distance. The Hudson Valley in Winter from Olana is so true to the feeling of the place, and so immediate, as to let you sense the very freshness of the air.

This atmospheric quality is what I find sets Church apart from the other artists of his genre, and it is in abundance in this show. A similar feeling of discovery is retained in the one full-scale piece from Olana in the show, a view of El Khasné, Petra (a classical façade carved out of solid rock) glimpsed glowing through a chink in the shadowed walls of a gorge. Avery calls it “the most important painting at Olana,” and Church must have agreed, since he hung it over the fireplace. It sports a Persian-motif frame that is quite impressive as well.

Of the other large paintings shown, the one of a scene in Maine titled Sunset (borrowed from Utica’s marvelous Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute) is perhaps the best—it is certainly the most dazzling, with its perfectly captured evening sky in layers of orange, red, and purple and the seamless reflection of it in indigo-tinted still water.

The show also features a set of 19 small pencil drawings from a private collection in which Church has serialized some friends’ fishing excursions, complete with pratfalls and captions. They didn’t do a thing for me, but others in the gallery were enjoying them heartily.


PERIPHERAL VISION

-no peripheral vision this week


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