Niagara by Frederic Edwin Church

Niagara by Frederic Church (1857)

My Daily Art Display for today returns to a painting by an American artist and another member of the Hudson River School, which was a mid-19th century American art movement personified by a group of landscape painters whose artistic vision was influenced by the 18th century European Romanticism movement.   The paintings for which the group is named depict the Hudson River Valley and the area around the Catskill, Adirondack and the White Mountain ranges.  The artist is Frederic Edwin Church.

Frederic Church was born in Hartford Connecticut in 1826.  His father, Joseph, was a silversmith and watchmaker and through his success and that of his father who had owned a paper mill, the Church household lived a prosperous lifestyle.  Frederic studied art at school and through a family neighbour, Daniel Wadsworth, was fortunate enough to be introduced to Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School, who agreed to take Frederic on as his pupil.   Church thrived under Cole’s tutelage and within a year, he had some of his paintings shown in the National Academy of Design annual exhibition.  The following year, 1848, Church was elected as the youngest Associate of the National Academy of Design and was promoted to Academician the following year.  That year he sold his first major oil painting to the Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum, which had been founded by Wadsworth.

In 1848 he went to live in New York and began to teach art.  In his spare time in spring and autumn he would travel throughout New York and New England, particularly Vermont, all the time sketching the beautiful scenery whilst during the winter months he would return to New York City and his home and convert his numerous sketches into a number of landscape paintings, all of which sold well.   Church and a friend set forth on an adventurous trip through Central America and Ecuador. From this trip, Church’s first finished South American pictures, shown to great acclaim in 1855, transformed his career.   For the next decade he devoted a great part of his attention to those subjects, producing a celebrated series that became the basis of his ensuing international fame.   During a two year period, 1854 to 1856, he travelled extensively visiting Nova Scotia, and journeying throughout Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont, and it was around this time that he visited the Niagara Falls.   The late 1850’s were the high point of Church’s career, artistic triumph followed artistic triumph.   In 1857 he made another trip to Ecuador and also took a voyage to Newfoundland and Labrador.  In 1860, Church bought some farmland at Hudson, New York, and married Isabel Carnes, whom he had met during the exhibition of his paintings.   He and his wife lead a settled and happy life and he spent most of his time tending to his farm but his happiness was shattered in 1865 when both his young children contracted diphtheria and died.  However, with the birth of Frederic junior in 1866, Church and his wife began a new family that was eventually to number four children.

At the end of 1867, Frederic Church and his family embarked on a long trip to Europe, North Africa, the Near East, and Greece that was to last eighteen months and was to lead to several important paintings. As Church got older he spent more and more time on his farm and farming.  From the 1870’s onwards Church suffered badly from rheumatoid arthritis and it badly affected his right arm which curtailed much of his art work although he did teach himself to paint with his left hand.  Frederic Church died in 1900, aged 74 and is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery in Hartford, Connecticut.

Today’s painting by Frederic Church entitled Niagara is one of four he painted of this waterfall.  This one was painted in 1857 and guaranteed for him, still a young man of thirty-one, the role of America’s most famous painter.   It is probably the most famous painting of it ever made.  During the 19th century, American artists flocked to the Falls to paint the various views of it.  The Falls were looked upon as the nation’s greatest natural wonder.   This picture was painted from the Canadian shore, a short distance above Table Rock, and includes the sweep of the Horseshoe Fall and the edge of Goat Island in a notable depiction of water and light. The time is towards evening.   We can see an amazing amount of detail in every stage of the water’s journey as it cascades downwards.  Look at how Church has incorporated an optical flourish of the rainbow against the falling waters.

The painting was introduced to the American public shortly after its completion, as a one-painting exhibition at the commercial gallery of Williams, Stevens, and Williams in New York City.   People flocked to see the work and were willing to pay 25 cents each to view the monumental canvas, which measured 109cms x 230cms and sometimes they would use opera glasses or other optical aids to augment the experience.   With their 25 cents admission fee the people would also receive a pamphlet that reprinted contemporary critics’ praise of Church’s picture and offered exhibition-goers the opportunity to purchase a print of the work.   Within a fortnight of the exhibition’s opening more than a hundred thousand people had paid to see it.  Art critics lavished praise on the work describing it as “the finest oil picture ever painted on this side of the Atlantic.”    After this success in New York the painting was taken to a number of American cities before it made two tours of Britain and was exhibited at the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris where it won a prize

The painting now hangs in the The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC