Biography of Frederic Edwin Church, American Landscape Painter

frederic edwin church el rio de luz
"El Rio de Luz" (1877). Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was an American landscape painter known as a significant part of the Hudson River School movement. He is best known for his large-scale paintings of natural scenes. Mountains, waterfalls, and the impact of sunlight all create drama when viewing works by Church. At his peak, he was one of the most famous painters in America.

Fast Facts: Frederic Edwin Church

  • Known For: American landscape painter
  • Movement: Hudson River School
  • Born: May 4, 1826 in Hartford, Connecticut
  • Parents: Eliza and Joseph Church
  • Died: April 7, 1900 in New York City, New York
  • Spouse: Isabel Carnes
  • Selected Works: "Cotopaxi" (1855), "Heart of the Andes" (1859), "Rainy Season in the Tropics" (1866)
  • Notable Quote: "Imagine this fairy-like temple blazing like sunlight among those savage black rocks."

Early Life and Education

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in the early 19th century, Frederic Edwin Church was a direct descendant of a Puritan pioneer who was part of the Thomas Hooker expedition that founded the city of Hartford in 1636. His father was a successful businessman working as a silversmith and jeweler as well as serving on the board of directors for multiple financial operations. Due to the wealth of the Church family, Frederic was able to begin studying art seriously while a teenager.

Church began studying with landscape artist Thomas Cole in 1844. Cole was considered one of the founders of the Hudson River School of painters. He said that the young Church had "the finest eye for drawing in the world."

While studying with Cole, Frederic Edwin Church journeyed around his native New England and New York to sketch sites such as East Hampton, Long Island, the Catskill Mountain House, and the Berkshires. He sold his first painting, "Hooker's Party Coming to Hartford," in 1846 for $130. It shows the arrival at the future location of Hartford, Connecticut.

frederic edwin church hooker's party coming to hartford
"Hooker's Party Coming to Hartford" (1846). Barney Burstein / Getty Images

In 1848, the National Academy of Design elected Frederic Edwin Church as their youngest associate and promoted him to full membership a year later. He followed in the tradition of his mentor Thomas Cole and took students. Among the first were journalist William James Stillman and painter Jervis McEntee.

Hudson River School

The Hudson River School was an American art movement of the 1800s characterized by painting a romantic vision of American landscapes. Initially, most of the works showed scenes from the Hudson River Valley and the surrounding area, including the Catskills and the Adirondack Mountains.

Art historians credit Thomas Cole with the founding of the Hudson River School movement. He first visited the Hudson River Valley in 1825 and hiked into the eastern Catskills to paint landscapes. Hudson River School paintings are characterized by a sense of harmony between humans and nature. Many of the artists believed that the natural state of the American landscape was a reflection of God.

Frederic Edwin Church was one of Cole's favorite students, and he found himself at the center of the second generation of Hudson River School artists when Cole died suddenly in 1848. The second generation soon began to travel into other parts of the world and paint landscapes of foreign countries in the same Hudson River School style.

In addition to his teacher Thomas Cole, Church saw the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt as a prominent inspiration. Other influences included the English art critic John Ruskin. He urged artists to be careful observers of nature and render every detail with precision. During his frequent trips to London, England, Church would have most certainly viewed the celebrated landscapes of J.M.W. Turner.

frederic edwin church storm in the mountains
"Storm in the Mountains" (1847). Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Ecuador and the Andes

Frederic Edwin Church settled in New York in 1850. He built a financially successful career selling his paintings, and he was soon one of the best-known artists in the United States. He took two trips to South America in 1853 and 1857, spending most of his time in and near Quito, Ecuador.

Church took the first trip with business leader Cyrus West Field, known for his role in laying the first telegraph cable under the Atlantic Ocean, who hoped that Church's paintings would lure others to invest in South American business projects. As a result of the trips, Church produced multiple paintings of the areas he explored.

One of Church's best-known paintings from this period is the massive work "Heart of the Andes." The picture is almost ten feet wide and more than five feet high. The subject matter is a composite of the places that Church saw on his journeys. The snow-capped mountain in the distance is Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador's highest peak. A Spanish colonial church appears in the painting as well as two indigenous Ecuadorians standing by a cross.

frederic edwin church heart of the andes
"Heart of the Andes" (1859). Corbis Historical / Getty Images

"Heart of the Andes" caused a sensation when exhibited, and Church, the talented entrepreneur, arranged to have it shown in eight cities on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. In New York City alone, 12,000 people paid a fee of twenty-five cents to view the painting. By the early 1860s, Frederic Edwin Church was one of the world's most famous artists. He sold the painting for $10,000. At that time, it was the highest price ever paid for a painting by a living American artist.

World Travel

In 1860, Church bought a farm in Hudson, New York, that he named Olana. He also married Isabel Carnes. Late in the decade, Church began to travel extensively again with his wife and four children in tow.

The Church family traveled far and wide. They visited London, Paris, Alexandria, Egypt, and Beirut, Lebanon. While his family stayed in the city, Church traveled on the back of a camel with missionary David Stuart Dodge to view the ancient city of Petra in the Jordanian desert. The artist created sketches of many of the places he visited and then turned them into finished paintings once he returned home.

Church didn't always rely on his own experiences as subject matter for his paintings. For the painting "Aurora Borealis," he relied on the sketches and written details provided by his friend, explorer Isaac Israel Hayes. The official account of the voyage of exploration appeared in an 1867 book titled "The Open Polar Sea."

frederic edwin church aurora borealis
"Aurora Borealis" (1865). Buyenlarge / Getty Images

After returning home from Europe and the Middle East in 1870, Frederic Edwin Church built a mansion on a hilltop at Olana. The architecture shows Persian influences.

Later Career

Frederic Edwin Church's fame dimmed in his later years. Rheumatoid arthritis slowed his creation of new paintings. He spent part of this time teaching young artists, including Walter Launt Palmer and Howard Russell Butler.

As he aged, Church showed little interest in the development of new movements in the art world. One of those was Impressionism. While his professional star dimmed, the artist's last years weren't unhappy. He enjoyed visits to Olana by many prominent friends, among them the author Mark Twain. In the 1890s, Church began using his personal fortune to buy back a number of his own paintings.

frederic edwin church rainy season in the tropics
"Rainy Season in the Tropics" (1866). Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Frederic Edwin Church's wife Isabel died in 1899. Less than a year later, he passed away. They are buried in a family plot in Hartford, Connecticut.

Legacy

Throughout most of the first half of the 20th century, art critics and historians dismissed Frederic Edwin Church's work as "old-fashioned." After a 1945 Hudson River School exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, Church's reputation began to grow again. By the late 1960s, prominent museums began to purchase his paintings again.

frederic edwin church
Corbis Historical / Getty Images

Church was an inspiration for later American artists such as Edward Hopper and George Bellows. He is credited with tremendous skill at careful renderings of plants, animals, and the atmospheric effect of light. He didn't intend his paintings to be an exact rendering of a location. Instead, he often constructed his scenes from elements of multiple locations placed together.

Sources

  • Ferber, Linda S. The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. Rizzoli Electa, 2009.
  • Raab, Jennifer. Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail. Yale University Press, 2015.