Frederic Edwin Church, Painter of the American Sublime

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:55

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    The Promised Land "In the beginning, all the world was America," John Locke wrote. Pristine as untracked snow, virginal in both spirit and conception, America as a God-given, singularly vast wilderness became for 19th-century American artists the high-minded road leading to a decidedly national art. On the Continent, the Romantic age produced artists like William Wordsworth and J.M.W. Turner, Friedrich von Schelling and Caspar David Friedrich, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot and Charles-François Daubigny. In America, long Europe's artistic little brother, one painter above all fulfilled the birthright of high art and an as yet not fully settled national identity: Frederic Edwin Church. Frederic Church (1826-1900), the first student of the painter Thomas Cole, was to become, like Cole before him, the most famous painter living in practical, commercially minded, Protestant America. Imbued, like Cole and other Romantics, with what Wordsworth called the "awful presence of an unseen power," Church echoed in his painting the transcendentalist credo espoused by writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson. "In the woods, we return to reason and faith," Emerson wrote in one particularly cosmic passage, "I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God."

    Painting essentially what Seneca would have called four-square "imitations of nature," Church's landscapes bristle with moralizing effects that edge his canvases toward sermonizing. But what effects! His pictures are lushly overgrown, endless valleys filled in with the minutest fine-tuned detail. Above the valleys, drawn always from a composite of perspectives, Church hangs moody-colored, portentous clouds like layers of stagy drapery. A lowering or rising sun?Church could hardly keep himself from painting the cheap drama of a sunrise or sunset?wraps the canvases like a veil, setting glowing or ray-throwing orbs as firmer records yet of the Almighty's power.

    As if more records of the Almighty were really needed. Frederic Edwin Church was an inspired adherent of the Church of Nature, a firm believer in the idea of the all-reconciling unity of the natural world and its infinite plan. Opposed temperamentally to so-called "manmade advances," Church worshipped at the altar of the American natural sublime just at a time when America was running out of frontier and had begun to feel the effects of the coming machine age. The California goldrush of 1848, the Civil War in '61, the Alaska Purchase of '67, the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads in '69?all of these served notice on Church's notion of a virginal, innately balanced, Yehova-yoked natural order. Left with teeming tourist traps to paint like Niagara Falls, Church idealized the nature he saw, inflating it until it reached the realm of the fantastic.

    Frederick Edwin Church, THE METEOR OF 1860, ca.1861 Inspired by the example of his hero, the German explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and by the presence of painter competitors teeming in and around the Hudson Valley, Church set off in 1853 on the first of a series of painting expeditions to Central and South America that would make him a household name. One painting to emerge from Church's repeated trips was the immensely spectacular Heart of the Andes. Massive in size, lit by gas lamps and placed in a framed niche surrounded by semicircular benches, Church's tour de force attracted thousands of visitors who paid a quarter each to gaze upon his majestic, protosurreal Eden. Unwittingly, Church promoted a secular, Protestant version of art taken from the more commercially naive Catholic Renaissance: painting as mass entertainment. Church painted a slew of other, utterly fantastic, exotic landscapes that live on as masterpieces of a particularly weird, heavy-metal, J.R.R. Tolkienish kind. "In Search of the Promised Land: Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church," a retrospective of the artist's paintings currently on view at the uptown Berry-Hill Galleries, goes a long way to providing the sort of coherent vision of Church's work that one might otherwise only get by visiting a number of East Coast museums. Among some 50 paintings and studies for paintings, the exhibition includes a trio of his wildest, most exalted canvases, plus a few other pictures that give unexpected insight into his peculiarly religious and far-out brand of landscape painting.

    The painting View Near Stockbridge Mass., for example, turns out to be a near homage to Thomas Cole's famous The Oxbow, a stormy American arcadia that Church represents in rosier hues, with a church spire in the far-off distance, a flock of birds falling from the clouds and a sun-struck heifer in place of Cole's gnarled, broken tree. The chromolithograph Under Niagara and the painting Study for "The Icebergs" are, respectively, an afterthought and a smallish sketch for two of Church's most widely celebrated canvases. And grandiose conceptions like Ruins at Baalbek, The Parthenon and Study for "Jerusalem," Church's middle-aged stabs at history paintings of Roman, Greek and Middle Eastern landscapes, show how precious little the American painter had to contribute to these weighty, well-trod subjects.

    Instead, it's his lush, almost comically exotic paintings like Cayambe and Cotopaxi that make this and any other exhibition of Church's come to life like struck piñatas. Overloaded with leafy, flowery detail in the painting's foreground, the massive peak of the Cayambe volcano shoots up out of the painter's inaccurate, fantastic jungle like an oddly puritan and solitary iceberg. Cotopaxi, a setpiece of hell and hellfire magic significantly painted at the outset of the Civil War, is Church at his most ambitious and most conservatively radical. Bathed in a reddish-orange light, the entire barren and jagged landscape of lake and plummeting rock glows portentously in anticipation of the volcano blowing its top. A huge plume of smoke overhangs the sun and the horizon, heating up even the impossible waterfall cooling the bottom of the canvas. A view of the coming Apocalypse: Church could not resist picturing the story of Cain and Abel in the remote, primeval and absolutist language of Genesis.

    "In Search of the Promised Land: Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church," through July 15 at Berry-Hill Galleries, 11 E. 70th St. (betw. Madison & 5th Aves.), 744-2300.