Artists & Designers

Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)

Frederic Edwin Church was one of the most celebrated American landscape painters of his time, and his legacy continues into the present. Church was born in Hartford, Connecticut to a wealthy family that used their connections to establish Hudson River School landscape painter Thomas Cole as Church’s mentor. Church studied at Cole’s New York studio in the Catskill Mountains between 1844 and 1846. Unlike his teacher’s paintings, Church’s landscapes were not explicitly allegorical or religious. Rather, Church’s work reflects his interest in science and exploration. Church was a member of the American Geographical and Statistical Society, a group of scientists, artists, and literary men united in their fascination with the natural world.

After leaving his mentor, Church set up his own studio in New York City and focused on his long-standing interest in exploration, engendered by explorer Alexander von Humboldt's accounts from his five-year expedition to South America. Humboldt’s experiences sparked an interest in travel and exotic landscapes that would stay with Church throughout his career. Church believed that detailed on-the-spot observation was the essential groundwork for his paintings of nature. While his early works depict scenes from New England and New York, he later traveled widely, visiting Columbia, Ecuador, Jamaica, Israel, Jordan, and countries throughout Europe in an effort to follow Humboldt’s global mandate and capture as much of the world as possible for the American public. This kind of adventurous exploration of the remote places of the world fascinated both scientists and laymen during the 19th century.

Church was a precocious and talented landscape painter for whom success seemed to come naturally. At age twenty-three, he was the youngest artist ever elected as a full academician in the National Academy of Design in 1849. His exotic subject matter gave the American public what it craved, a mental picture of the spectacular sections of the world they would never have the opportunity to see. The 19th century was a time of the popularization of knowledge, and the Americans were anxious to know about the world beyond their horizon. These travels would result in his most celebrated and widely exhibited works, such as Niagara (1857, The Corcoran Gallery of Art) and The Heart of the Andes (1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art), which launched him onto the national and international art stage. Church often dramatically displayed his heroic landscapes of exotic locales and drew large crowds of paying visitors. Church's genius was to make the myths of his day both visible and believable to his fellow-men. His great landscapes became the very icons of Manifest Destiny.

In 1860, during the peak of Church's reputation as the leading American landscape painter, Church married Isabel Carnes, and the couple settled on a farm in Hudson, New York. Between 1880 and his death in 1900, Church dedicated his energy to building and decorating his estate, Olana, and produced only a half dozen or so finished paintings. Unfortunately, Church outlived his popularity—the style and subject matter of his painting were becoming unpopular. Church's landscapes had become paintings of a vanished dream. A scientific revolution had occurred. Darwin had published his Origin of Species (1859) and undermined the basis of Church's and the American public's optimism by challenging their belief that the world was governed by a Great Design. Furthermore, the Civil War had dissolved the public's idealism concerning the country's future. By the 1880s, patrons had turned away from Hudson River School painters and were more interested in the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist styles imported from Europe. Church lived in virtual seclusion at Olana until his death in 1900.

Adapted from

  • "Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs," DMA Connect, Dallas Museum of Art, 2012.

  • Ken Kelsey, Gail Davitt, Mary Ann Allday, Troy Smythe, and Barbara Barrett, "Art of the Americas at the Dallas Museum of Art," Teaching packet (Dallas Museum of Art), 1994.

  • Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Frederic Church's Painting, The Icebergs: A Lost Masterpiece Rediscovered [Brochure], Text, [1980].

  • Gerald L. Huntington in Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1980), 7,9

  • Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Voyage of the 'Icebergs': Frederic Edwin Church's Arctic Masterpiece (Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002), 46, 63, 69.

Related Multimedia

lecture; focus on Church's trips to Mexico during 1880s and 1890s
Dr. Eleanor Jones Harvey, Senior Curator at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and former Dallas Museum of Art curator, places the DMA's iconic painting The Icebergs by Frederic Edwin Church [1979.28] into the larger context of the Civil War. Featured in the SAAM and Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition The Civil War and American Art, The Icebergs helped to illustrate the transformative impact of the war through American art.
lecture; focus on Church's trips to Mexico during 1880s and 1890s
Risking body and brains in pursuit of a good sketch': Adventures of the Landscape Painter in the Field, Eleanor Jones Harvey, Consulting Curator of American Art, DMA; 'The love of grandeur and expanseâ026a naturalist's view of nature': Frederic Church and Exploration, Dr. Gerald L. Carr, independent scholar; From Plein-air to 'Painting on-site', Ross Merrill, Chief of Conservation, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Risking body and brains in pursuit of a good sketch': Adventures of the Landscape Painter in the Field, Eleanor Jones Harvey, Consulting Curator of American Art, DMA; 'The love of grandeur and expanseâ026a naturalist's view of nature': Frederic Church and Exploration, Dr. Gerald L. Carr, independent scholar; From Plein-air to 'Painting on-site', Ross Merrill, Chief of Conservation, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

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