Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Church, Frederic Edwin
Collection: American Collection
Specialty: Paintings
One of the key instruments involved in forging a sense of an American self
after the establishment of the United States would be a group of artists
collectively known as the Hudson River School. The Hudson River School was
an American landscape movement which began in 1825 and achieved the height
of its popularity from 1840 to 1870. The early years of the school were
dominated by artists who lived and worked in New York, including its
founder Thomas Cole. These artists shared a common style, technique, and
subject - the Hudson River and the Catskills and Adirondacks that bordered
it. Cole's premature death was a blow, but one of his staunchest disciples
was ready to step into his place as a leader among the younger Hudson
River painters -Frederic Church.

Born to a wealthy Connecticut family in 1826, Church was provided with
extensive artistic training plus the means to travel and support his
artistic and social pursuits. While Jasper Cropsey and one or two others
continued to paint idealized vistas of the Hudson River Valley and
Catskill Mountains, Church, Moran, Bierstadt and the other later members
of the "School" began exploring the American West, creating huge panoramic
landscapes of the Rockies and the Grand Canyon. Frederic Church, like Cole
before him, religiously accepted Ruskin's dictum that landscape painting
should be, "the thoughtful and passionate representation of the physical
conditions appointed for human existence". However, his work, like that of
other members of his generation, looked less to the neo-Platonic
transformation of landscape that revealed the hand of God than to a
celebration of the might and majesty of Manifest Destiny claiming the
grandeur of the American land. Landscape became a political statement as
much as an art form. In 1864, art critic James Jackson Jarvis declared in
The Art-Idea, "The thoroughly American branch of painting, based upon the
facts and tastes of the country and people is . . . landscape".

This second wave of artists, like the first, was painting a landscape that
was already vanishing under the tide of civilization. As early as the
1830's, Alexis de Tocqueville had observed:

It is the consciousness of destruction, or quick and inevitable change,
that gives such a touching beauty to the solitudes of America. One sees
them with a sort of melancholy pleasure; one is in some sort of a hurry to
admire them.

But the Western paintings of these later Hudson River School artists,
particularly of scenic venues like the Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone
would be instrumental in establishing a national park system that
preserved at least some of the natural beauty they celebrated.

By the 1860s, the Hudson River artists found their fame spreading even to
Europe. Church's "Niagara" was hailed throughout the continent and had a
tremendous success on exhibition in London. As their fame grew, so it
seemed did the size and price of their paintings. "Niagara" was over three
feet high and seven feet wide while Church's "The Heart of the Andes " was
over ten feet wide. The prices for these paintings were equally huge for
their time, usually about $25,000, an enormous price indeed when one
considers that these were 1870s dollars. Church built a huge and
apparently eternally redesigned villa named Olana in Hudson, New York as
well as summer homes in Maine and Mexico to share with his wife and four
surviving children.

But with the large prices also came the first hints of decline. Some
critics and audiences complained that the artists were putting too much on
canvases that were too large. Tastes began, yet again, to change. Church,
who had risen the highest, had the farthest to fall and was doomed to
spend the last twenty years of his life watching his work being either
ignored or denigrated. When he died in 1900, the work of the Hudson River
School had been completely eclipsed.

However, as often happens, later evaluations have restored the luster of
these works and, by the 1970s, the artistic reputations of the Hudson
River School painters had been restored. In 1979 Church's "The Icebergs"
sold at auction for a phenomenal $2.5 million and the value of his works
continues to grow today.

Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections