Artist Biography

Frederic Edwin Church

(1826 - 1900)

Table of Contents

    American painter, landscape specialist and leading figure of the Hudson River School

    By Alexandra A. Jopp

    An American landscape and seascape painter who extended romantic realism to treat new, often exotic, subjects with splendid and fluid physical presence

    I. Biography

    Frederic Edwin Church was among the most celebrated artists of the late 1850s and 1860s. As Thomas Cole’s most successful pupil, Church worked as a young man within the milieu of the Hudson River School. He was described by historian Gwendolyn Owens as “a master of the panoramic landscape,”1 and by the 1850s, according to writer Joe Sherman, he “had become a painter to watch, one who critics claimed had a ‘true feeling for art’ and who was heading toward an ‘original path.’”2 Church’s harmonies of color, light and luminosity helped to turn historical landscape into a popular art form.

    Church was born into a wealthy and prominent Connecticut family on May 4, 1826. He showed early artistic talent and, as a teenager, studied in his hometown with local painters Alexander Hamilton Emmons (1816-84) and Benjamin Hutchins Coe (1799-1883). In May 1844, Church moved to Catskill, N.Y., to work with noted landscape painter Thomas Cole. Church’s father, Joseph, a silversmith and watchmaker, paid $300 per year for technical instruction for his son. In accepting Church into his studio, Cole must have seen a young artist who shared his thoughts and spirits and held extraordinary promise. Church was only 19 years old when one of his paintings was accepted for exhibition by the National Academy of Design. Three years later, he became the youngest person ever to be granted full membership in the National Academy.

    In the summer of 1850, Church made his first trip to Maine, and several seascape paintings resulted from the visit. Shortly thereafter, in the spring of 1853, Church, inspired by German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and his scientific travelogues, made his first trip to South America. For five months, accompanied by his friend Cyrus Field (whose company would later be responsible for laying the first transatlantic cable), Church focused on landscape painting in relation to modern science, completing pencil studies and oil sketches of volcanoes, mountains and river scenes. Upon his return to New York, Church reproduced exotic tropical landscapes in such paintings as Tamaca Palms (1854, Corcoran Gallery of Art) and La Magdalena (1854, National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts.) However, the work that brought him his greatest fame in the United States and abroad was a panoramic view of Niagara Falls. Niagara (1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art) was completed in two months and was exhibited by itself throughout North America and England.

    In 1867, two years after losing a son and a daughter to diphtheria, Church and his family sailed for Europe. During the visit, he went to London, Rome and the Near East and studied classical sites in Greece. In the summer and fall, the family traveled through Switzerland and northern Italy before settling in Rome, where Church established a studio. During this time, the artist developed plans to build a Persian villa on a hilltop above his New York farm that which would offer him views of the Hudson River and Catskill Mountains. Church, who was fascinated with Orientalism and exotica, never visited Persia, but the architectural features that he visualized share a common Islamic essence. The family moved into their new home in 1872. Seven years later, Church’s painting Icebergs (1861), which was inspired by an expedition to the coast of Labrador, Canada, became the first American painting to be sold for more than $1 million, bringing $2.5 million. Church’s paintings continue to set records on the art market. In 1989, Sotheby’s sold Home by the Lake (1852) for more than $8 million.3

    In his final years, Church continued to travel broadly. He spent winters in Mexico, escaping the harsh Northeast weather that was made more difficult by his rheumatism. His wife, Isabel, died in 1899, after which Church’s health declined. He died at the house of a friend in New York City, unable to get to his fabled and beloved home “Olana” (which is now a National Historic Landmark and a center for Church study.)

    Church’s paintings are reminiscences on experiences gained from traveling around the world. His works present rural images from New England with the same elegance as tropical exotica from South America. As a landscape artist, Church, using a combination of romantic realism and ideological anatomy, established a new direction for American art.

    II. Chronology

    • 1826 Born on May 4, in Hartford, Conn., to Joseph Church and Eliza Janes
    • 1842 Studied art in Hartford with Alexander Hamilton Emmons and Benjamin Hutchins Coe
    • 1844 Began studying in Thomas Cole’s studio in Catskill, N.Y.
    • 1845 Exhibited first two paintings at National Academy of Design
    • 1846 Completed studies with Cole
    • 1848 Elected to be youngest Associate of National Academy of Design and promoted to Academician the following year; mentor Thomas Cole died
    • 1850 Elected to be member of Century Association in New York City
    • 1853-57 Traveled throughout South America
    • 1857 Unveiled Niagara in London and New York; work would make him the most famous painter in America
    • 1860 Bought farm in Hudson, N.Y., and married Isabel Carnes
    • 1865 Son and daughter died from diphtheria
    • 1867 Sailed with family for Europe; visited Near East; purchased 18 acres on hilltop above his Hudson, N.Y., farm on which he would build “Olana,” his family estate
    • 1869 Visited Jerusalem, Greek islands, western Turkey and Switzerland; settled family in Rome
    • 1872 Moved into “Olana”
    • 1877 Created his last great South American image, El Rio de Luz
    • 1899 Wife Isabel died
    • 1900 Died on April 7 in New York City

    III. Collections

    • Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Massachusetts
    • Albany Institute of History and Art, New York
    • Amon Carter Museum, Texas
    • Art Institute of Chicago
    • Arthur Ross Gallery at the University of Pennsylvania
    • Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University
    • Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Utah
    • Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York City
    • Butler Institute of American Art, Ohio
    • Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
    • Cincinnati Art Museum, Ohio
    • Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio
    • Colby College Museum of Art, Maine
    • Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York City
    • Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
    • Currier Gallery of Art, New Hampshire
    • Dallas Museum of Art, Texas
    • Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan
    • Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
    • Harvard University Art Museums, Massachusetts
    • Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana
    • Los Angeles County Museum of Art
    • Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
    • Middlebury College Museum of Art, Vermont
    • Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
    • Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas
    • National Academy of Design, New York City
    • National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburgh
    • National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
    • Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri
    • New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut
    • New-York Historical Society
    • Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York
    • Philadelphia Museum of Art
    • Portland Museum of Art, Maine
    • Reading Public Museum, Pennsylvania
    • Samuel Dorsky Museum of Art, New Paltz, New York
    • Seattle Art Museum
    • Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
    • Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Washington D.C.
    • Smithsonian Institution Art Inventories
    • Tacoma Art Museum, Washington
    • Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
    • The Huntington Library, California
    • The Newark Museum, New Jersey
    • The Parthenon, Tennessee
    • The White House
    • Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid
    • Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Connecticut
    • Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland

    IV. Exhibitions

    • 1845-on National Academy of Design (several occasions)
    • 1847-52 American Art Union
    • 1851-67 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts
    • 1859 Bloomfield, Steel & Company
    • 1861-74 Brooklyn Art Association
    • 1867 Paris Expo
    • 1882-84 Century Association
    • 1882 Goupil and Company; M. Knoedler
    • 1900 Metropolitan Museum of Art
    • 1988 National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC.

    V. Memberships

    • National Academy of Design
    • Century Association

    VI. Notes

    1: Shipp, Steve. American Art Colonies, 1850-1930: A Historical Guide to America’s Original Art Colonies and Their Artists (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 66.

    2: Shipp, Steve. American Art Colonies, 1850-1930: A Historical Guide to America’s Original Art Colonies and Their Artists (Westport, Conn., and London: Greenwood Press, 1996), 67.

    3: Vogel, Carol. “Lost Treasure to Be Auctioned.” The New York Times, May 7 1999.

    VII. Suggested Resources

    • Avery, Kevin J. Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005.
    • Carr, Gerald L. Frederic Edwin Church: Romantic Landscapes and Seascapes. New York: Adelson, 2008.
    • Carr, Gerald L. In Search of the Promised Land: Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church. New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 2000.
    • Howat, John K. Frederic Edwin Church. New Heaven: Yale University Press, 2005.

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