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Rendering nature's message

Painting out-of-doors was becoming the vogue in the mid-nineteenth century, but some artists took it more seriously than others. Frederic Edwin Church followed diligently the example of his mentor, Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, studying nature continually. Church's landscapes give vivid expression to the view prevalent at the time that unspoiled nature was the truth of earthly reality, the truth to which ''civilized'' man must return for a sense of salvation that society cannot produce.

Church was one of the first and last major American painters who was also an explorer. In mid-career, his renown was such that he could simply have turned out studio pictures indefinitely and made a handsome living. But he seems to have understood and felt responsible for the fact that the extraordinary pictorial realism of which he was capable could serve a kind of social purpose. We have to remember that he was working at a time when the camera had not yet replaced the painter as the most informative witness to exploration of natural wilderness. The camera could take a portrait, and possibly record an event, but it couldn't yet tell people what it felt like to see something that very few people ever get to see. Only a really accomplished painter like Church could do that.

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At great risk and expense, Church undertook to travel to the jungles of Ecuador and Colombia, to the mountains of Jamaica, and then to the far north. On each foray, he made detailed studies, later to be developed into finished paintings, of extraordinary natural phenomena that most of his contemporaries would never see firsthand. He also painted what was to become the most acclaimed picture of Niagara Falls ever done, as if to assure his audience of the verifiable accuracy of his work.

In 1859, Church traveled north of Newfoundland by sea in search of icebergs, which were already the subject of popular curiosity. Before each of his exploratory trips, Church spent time researching the conditions he could expect to find. In this case, he reportedly interviewed a number of people who had seen icebergs to get the best idea he could of the range of colors he would need in order to record his own impressions of them.

The trip north turned out to be one of the artist's most arduous journeys. Harsh conditions and seasickness made it difficult for him to do any sustained painting. He was limited almost entirely to doing brisk oil sketches, many of which are so simple as to look nearly abstract.

''The Iceberg,'' completed over forty years after Church had seen the subject , is the combined product of memory and information recorded in the artist's firsthand sketches. It is probably the kind of picture he had hoped to realize closer in time and place to the actual icebergs, for Church tried to minimize the traditional dichotomy between direct observation of nature and finished studio pictures of it. Though the painting may not be as accurate a view as its realism suggests, it probably is true to the impression that icebergs made on the artist. Within the evocation of naturalist's observation is a powerful sense of the iceberg as something eerie and almost extraterrestrial. ''The Iceberg'' is like a mountain set adrift from the land, implying immense, impersonal forces only momentarily becalmed. Church included the schooner in the foreground partly to give us a sense of the iceberg's scale, but the juxtaposition of the two evokes something of that feeling of paralyzing awe before nature that the nineteenth century knew as ''the sublime.''

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