In Focus

Frederic Edwin Church's "Great Pictures" and Theatrical Display

By 1857 Frederic Edwin Church began working with commercial agents and galleries to display each of his large-scale paintings, which he called “Great Pictures,” as a solo event. Viewers paid an admission fee and received a printed broadside to enhance their sense of awe and appreciation of the artist's technical prowess.

By definition, every Great Picture was, to a greater or lesser extent, surrounded by orchestrated publicity and newspaper and periodical coverage. The Icebergs was conceived in the spotlight of media and public expectation. For nearly two years between the summer of 1859 and the spring of 1861, the American public knew a major Arctic painting was forthcoming from Church's easel and awaited its completion with eager anticipation. In every essential sense except one—the canvas was painted behind the closed doors of Church's New York studio—The Icebergs was a public work of art.

About Church’s theatrical presentation, one critic noted: “Entering the room we found the whole end of the apartment filled with a huge frame of dark wood— carved like a cabinet and draped with crimson. Through this carved wood-work, as through an open window, we looked at once, nearly two thousand miles away—to Labrador!” [1]

Another journalist described the gallery space as, "Its floor is covered with a carpet of deep emerald which has the soothing effect of turf under your feet. It is furnished with sofas and divans of a rich purple maroon, and the walls are hung with soft cloth of the same hue. At the end of the gallery, beneath sweeping drapery, within a massive frame of dark, gorgeously carved wood, glitter the scintillant ice-bergs [sic], and gleams, freezing as it flows far out to arctic solitudes, the emerald and azure ocean of the North. Such a picture was never painted before in this or any other country. It is not a picture, it is a sublime fact. You forget the gallery, the ostentatious frame, to sail out unawares into one of God’s primeval solitudes." [2]

[1] The Rev. Theodore L. Cuyler, "Among the Icebergs," Independent (New York), May 2, 1861, 1.

[2] M.C.A., "From New York: From Our Own Correspondent. New York, May 2," Springfield (Mass.) Daily Republican, May 4, 1861, page 1.

Adapted from

  • Gerald Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1980), 25.

  • Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Edwin Church's Arctic Masterpiece (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002), 45, 61.

Web Resources