In Focus

The North Painted by F.E. Church, from Studies of Icebergs Made in the Northern Seas, in the Summer of 1859

Frederic Edwin Church's distribution of a broadside, likely written by himself and Louis Legrand Noble, was a key aspect to the original displays of The Icebergs_. The text is divided into seven short passages that guide viewers into the painting's scenery, pointing out the mass, motion, colors, and optical effects of the berg. For the general public, the textual guide assisted their understanding of the other-worldly terrain. To the scientifically inclined, the essay and painting verified what had previously been known only through explorer's written accounts and provided an exciting visual record of the world's most challenging reaches._

The following is a transcription of the text from "The North. Painted by F.E. Church from Studies of Icebergs Made in the Northern Seas in the Summer of 1859," Boston, MA: Boston Atheneum, 1862 (printed by Prentiss & Deland Press).

I. The Form of the Iceberg.

The spectator is supposed to be standing on the ice, in a bay of the berg. The several masses are parts of one immense berg. Imagine an amphitheatre, upon the lower steps of which you stand, and see the icy foreground at your feet, and gaze upon the surrounding masses, all uniting in one beneath the surface of the sea. To the left is overhanging, precipitous ice; to the right is a part of the upper surface of the berg. To that succeeds an inner gorge, running up between Alpine peaks. In front is the main portion of the berg, exhibiting ice-architecture in its vaster proportions. Thus the beholder has around him the manifold forms of the huge Greenland glacier after it has been launched upon the deep, and subjected, for a time, to the action of the elements—waves and currents, sunshine and storm.

II. Motion of the Iceberg.

Every falling mass disturbs the exact balance of the berg upon its centre, far down in the sea. Large portions are supposed to have fallen, recently, from the side on which the spectator stands, giving preponderance to the opposite side. That has gone down; this has risen. All the foreground has risen out of the waves—the arch with its bridge and bowlder, and the lower part of the great central mass, as appears from the elevation and slant of the older water-lines.

III. Surface of the Iceberg.

A berg does not break from its own weight, but explodes from the absorption of heat, and thaws and wears away. This affords every variety of surface. On the cliffs, to the left, is a fracture, fresh and sharp, cutting like newly-broken porcelain or glass. On the right are surfaces rounded and polished by the weather. In the foreground and arch are seen the effects of the surf and currents. Upon the central mass, in front, all varieties of surface are exhibited.

IV. Colors of the Iceberg.

With the exception of an occasional vein, which is blue as sapphire, or stains from rock, an iceberg is purely white, an opaque, dead white,—ghastly and spiritless in a dull atmosphere; but in bright weather, especially late in the afternoon, kindling with a varied splendor. The picture aims to represent the berg at that brilliant hour. Lights and shadows, hues and tints, shower the scene, and are thrown in all ways, and multiplied by reflection. The pale-blue bands, on the left, are the veins alluded to,—simply clear, transparent ice, formed in the cracks of the glacier. All the darker blues are only white ice under shadows. The green ice, as in the arch, is only green by reflection of the green water.

V. The Sea.

From the brightness of an iceberg the eye is so affected that the sea appears very dark. Accordingly the beholder here looks out through a gradually widening avenue to the broad water, and finds it a very dark purple or violet. The sea, close in, partakes, with the surrounding ice, of all the brilliant reflections. Where the sea comes in contact with ice it is a lively green. Hence the emerald water of the foreground, and at the base of the great central mass. The pale-blue water just below the spectator, on the foreground, is an example of the pools of fresh water on the top of icebergs.

VI. The Sky.

From the same optical causes that the sea is dark, the sky is sombre, rather than of a luminous azure. Fog, a feature of icebergs, is sweeping the heights in front, and reddening in the late afternoon light.

VII. Expression of the Scene.

All things favoring, an iceberg, in itself alone, is a miracle of beauty and grandeur. A fine, quiet afternoon at sea affords all the requisites. Hence the picture presents the beholder with ice only, reposing, under the brightness of the declining sun, in the calm, solitary ocean,—grandeur with repose. The flight of the mist is noiseless. The swells come gently rolling in, in glassy circles, breaking with low murmur on the icy foreground.

Adapted from

  • David C. Huntington, “Introduction,” in Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs, by Gerald Carr (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1980), 16.

  • Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Voyage of the 'Icebergs': Frederic Edwin Church's Arctic Masterpiece (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002), 63.

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