The Hudson River Valley Institute
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Frederic Edwin Church: Nature and American Spirit on Canvas

winter sunset

With the picturesque landscapes of the Hudson River Valley, it is not surprising that this region inspired the first influential American art movement. From the period roughly between 1825 and 1870, a collective group of artists spawned a Romantic art movement known as the Hudson River School.[1] Frederic Edwin Church was one of the most famous artists amongst the second generation of the movement and one of the most successful American artists of the nineteenth century.

Frederic Edwin Church was born on May 4, 1826 in Hartford, Connecticut. Church’s father, Joseph Church, was a silversmith and watchmaker, both very profitable careers at the time.[2] Joseph was also the son of Samuel Church, who founded the first paper mill in Lee, Massachusetts, all of which provided the Church family with a certain amount of affluence.[3] This wealth allowed Church to pursue his artistic ventures at a young age. Church became the student of Thomas Cole from Catskill, NY at the age of eighteen.[4] Thomas Cole was a painter who is recognized as the founder of the Hudson River School. Church under Cole’s guidance soon rose to be a prominent artist during the mid-nineteenth century, travelling to places such as Canada and South America to paint beautiful scenery.

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860. Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900). Oil on canvas; 101.6 x 162.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1965.233.

This piece, Twilight in the Wilderness, was painted in 1860 and depicts a sunset on the Penobscot River near Katahdin Mountain in Maine.[5] It is characteristic of a Hudson River School piece through its use of landscape, realism, dramatic hues, and presenting an idealization of nature. In particular, Church uses luminism, a type of painting style that evokes the effects of lighting on a landscape while concealing the brush strokes to create a calm feeling to the piece. Church, like many other artists of the Hudson River School, was also highly patriotic and expressed American nineteenth century ideals of manifest destiny within his paintings. In Twilight in the Wilderness, he symbolically presents perfect, untouched American nature and wilderness waiting to be explored. Compared to some of his other works, Twilight in the Wilderness has depth to it with his use of darker tones that creates a warmth but also a looming feeling that something is about to happen. The Cleveland Museum of Art describes the painting’s subject as a premonition of the Civil War’s beginning, “symbolically evoking the coming inferno.”[6] Church put this piece up for seven weeks on exhibition at a prestigious art gallery where the piece enjoyed much publicity and a large amount of spectators during its display.[7]

Twilight in the Wilderness is in my opinion, one of Church’s best works and a representative piece for this chapter of America’s history. Unlike his oil masterpieces of Niagara Falls or tropical paradises, this painting is not as grand, yet its simplicity is what makes it majestic. Since it is not as exaggerated as his other paintings, it is almost more realistic. When looking at Twilight in the Wilderness from a distance, the detail of the clouds in the sky and the trees makes it almost look like a photograph rather than a painting. Without researching anything about this painting, I would not have known it depicted scenery in Maine. The anonymity of the scenery in this painting represents many areas of wilderness in the United States, which allowed me to connect with it. For me, this painting reminded me of my home in the Delaware Water Gap in PA, a family vacation in Shenandoah River Valley, and the Hudson River Valley all at once.

 

During the last 20 years of his life, Church was afflicted with Rheumatism in the hands and had difficulty painting as a result, although he continued to paint, albeit at a slower pace.[8] He passed away on April 7, 1900 at Olana, his house in Hudson, NY. The house is now a museum and historical site.[9] Olana is an artistic work in itself with its unique architecture and stunning grounds overlooking the Hudson River. To learn more about Olana or how to visit, go to http://www.olana.org/. With his mesmerizing and exotic depictions of various landscapes from around the world, Church is easily one of my favorite American artists. His legacy had a lasting effect on American art and hopefully, his paintings will continue to do so for years to come.

 

 

By Michelle Linker

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

“Biography of Frederic Edwin Church”. Frederic Edwin Church: The Complete Works https://www.fredericedwinchurch.org/biography.html

“Frederic Edwin Church.” Britannica Academic.

http://academic.eb.com.online.library.marist.edu/levels/collegiate/article/Frederic-Edwin-Church/82559.

“Twilight in the Wilderness (1867)”. Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900). Oil on canvas; 101.6 x 162.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1965.233.from http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1965.233

 

[1] “Frederic Edwin Church.” Britannica Academic. http://academic.eb.com.online.library.marist.edu/levels/collegiate/article/Frederic-Edwin-Church/82559.

[2] Biography of Frederic Edwin Church. Frederic Edwin Church: The Complete Works. https://www.fredericedwinchurch.org/biography.html

[3] Ibid,.

[4] Ibid,.

[5] Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860. Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900). Oil on canvas; 101.6 x 162.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1965.233.from http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1965.233

[6] Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860. Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900). Oil on canvas; 101.6 x 162.6 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1965.233.from http://www.clevelandart.org/art/1965.233

[7] Ibid,.

[8] “Frederic Edwin Church.” Britannica Academic. http://academic.eb.com.online.library.marist.edu/levels/collegiate/article/Frederic-Edwin-Church/82559.

[9] Ibid,.

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