was a master of the brush: Frederic Edwin Church’s Catskill
from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church
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
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
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 this week