For those of you who have just landed on this page I suggest you go back to my previous blog which looks at Frederic Church’s early life and talks a little about his exhibition at the National Gallery, London which I visited last week.
Another beautiful and moving historical painting by Frederic Church which was on display at the exhibition and which I found very moving was a small oil painting entitled Our Banner in the Sky which Frederic Church completed in 1861. I stood before this work, fascinated by the way in which Church had cleverly depicted the image of the Stars and Stripes American flag in tatters against an amazing daybreak landscape with its red and white bands of clouds. Church had painted this shortly after the attack on Fort Sumter by General Beauregard and his Confederate troops in January 1861 , which signalled the start of the American Civil War, which tragically went on to cost so many American lives. In the work we see a bare and tall tree slightly leaning over, which acts as a flagpole for the flag which blends in with the early morning sky. In it, we see the North Star depicted through a patch of blue sky. Church has cleverly managed to create a highly patriotic scene which in some ways connects the American landscape with the Northern cause. It was a heartfelt cry for unity which sadly was not listened to. It was such a popular work that the Manhattan art dealer, Goupil & Co. commissioned Church to produce a chromolithograph of the work and, within a few months, hundreds of copies were bought up by the public.
It was during the New York exhibition of his Andes painting that Frederic Church met Isabel Carnes. In 1860 just three months before his marriage to Isabel, Church bought some 126 acres of farmland, close to the towns of Hudson and Catskill and situated on a south sloping hill, overlooking the Hudson River. He was familiar with this site as he had visited the area whilst on a painting trip with Thomas Cole in 1845. As he still lived in New York, this new acquisition would be the family country get-away. Church employed the foremost architect of the time, Richard Morris Hunt, to construct a cottage and design this ferme ornée. The term means an ‘ornamented farm’, and describes a country estate laid out partly according to aesthetic principles and partly for farming. Church and his wife referred to the small cottgae on the estate as their Cosy Cottage and it was surrounded by gardens and orchards and Church even had a section of marshland drained so as to build his own expansive ten acre lake. Over time he bought up more of the adjoining land and eventually his estate encompassed 250 acres.
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 March 1865 when both his young children contracted diphtheria and died a week apart. In an attempt to counteract the intense grief suffered after their children’s death, he and his wife along with some friends travelled to Jamaica where, for five months, Frederic immersed himself in a painting frenzy whilst his wife collected numerous species of ferns which she would later bring back home and which would form part of her fern garden. Isabel’s interest in ferns and Frederic’s love of depicting nature in his painting were combined in his 1865 work entitled Fern Walk, Jamaica in which Church depicts a narrow path winding through luxuriant plants and ferns. The shades of greens and browns which he used in depicting the native flora is breathtaking. Frederic Church loved his stay in Jamaica. He loved sketching plein air in the tropical light and, on his return to America, would often encourage other landscape artists to venture on painting trips to the Caribbean island. In a letter he wrote to the landscape artist, Charles de Wolf Bramwell, he extolled the Fern Walk area of the island, writing:
“…the vegetation, next to that on the Magdalena River, the finest I ever saw –– The ferns, especially in the region known as Fern Walk — excelled every place…”
The couple returned home from Jamaica and in 1866 Isabel Church gave birth to a son, Frederic Junior. The following year Frederic and Isabel, along with their son and Isabel’s mother, set off on a two-year long journey of Europe and the Holy Land. They visited Jerusalem and from there headed to Jordan where Church, after an arduous ten day journey by mule, arrived at the ancient city of Petra. During the long trip Church continually sketched and painted. It was a trip which was fraught with danger from not only local bandits, but from the native porters which were helping Church’s party get to their destination. These Arabs were very superstitious about his sketching but were eventually won over by his skill. He finally arrived at Petra and made the long climb up above the city to the monastery of Ed Deir, which in the first century AD was a Nabatean temple. Frederic Church completed his beautiful oil and graphite painting entitled Ed Dier, Petra, Jordan, Unbelievable at it may sound but Church completed the work in just one sitting, in 1868.
From the Holy Land, Frederic Church returned to Europe visiting Rome and Athens and also the Bavarian Alpine region, Switzerland and Austria which had always been a popular venue for landscape painters. Church was drawn to this area as he was always searching for beautiful vistas to paint. He liked the area as he believed there was a marked similarity between the geography of the area and that of the rugged American landscapes which he knew so well. In July 1868 he visited the Königsee, the beautiful Upper Bavarian lake which nestles amongst steep-sided cliffs. Sheltered from the weather, the surface of the lake is often mirror-like reflecting the surrounding mountains. He completed a beautiful work entitled Königsee that month and it is a poignant reminder to me of the times I have visited the lake and stood in awe before it, mesmerised by its beauty.
Frederic Church in 1867 was becoming homesick and wanted to return to America and his country estate. Since he bought it seven years earlier he had been constantly planning the landscape design for the land and the architectural design for a large house on the top of the hill. Richard Morris Hunt, his architect, had submitted plans for a large French chateau-style house and Church had liked the idea and agreed to the design. However having returned from his tour of the Levant and studied the architecture of the area, he changed his mind. He decided to discharge Hunt and take on the British-born American architect and landscape designer Calvert Vaux who was based in Manhattan and had in 1858, along with Frank Law Olmstead had won a design competition to improve and expand New York’s Central Park.
Frederic Church and Vaux worked on the plans for the design of the house which was to be the centrepiece of Church’s estate, which he and his wife Isabel named Olana after a fortress-treasure house in ancient Persia which like Church’s estate also overlooked a river valley. The building project was completed in 1872.
As Church got older he spent more and more time on his farm and concentrated his time running the estate. From the 1870’s onwards Church suffered badly from rheumatoid arthritis which badly affected his right arm curtailing 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.
I will finish this blog with a look at the painting by Frederic Church, which most impressed me at the exhibition. It is entitled Forest Pool and was completed by Frederic Church around 1860. It was almost the first work I came across as I entered the exhibition room and I had to keep coming back to it in order to savour its beauty. I stood before it and could not believe the quality of the painting. Such beautifully drawn details. Such beautiful colour and tones. The work was a close-up view of a dense forest and a small forest pool. Every square inch of the work is covered in rich shades of green and brown and although it was a study for a larger painting, it seems as if it is a finished work. The artist has delightfully depicted the tranquillity of the forest scene with the calm surface of the pond offering up reflections of the trees and their branches and spots of sunlight. If you look closely at the upper middle part of the composition you will just be able to make out a hint of blue sky which is otherwise blocked by the screen of trees.
The Frederic Church exhibition at the National Gallery is worth going to see for this painting alone.