Written for Thea Westreich Art Advisory Services for Private Collection 21 November 1998.
Frederic E. Church
Rough Surf, Mt. Desert Island, Maine, 1850
Oil on paper, mounted on wood, 11 5/8 x 15 3/4 inches
Frederic Church was one of the most acclaimed American painters of the 19th century whose epic landscapes drew astonished praise from both his countrymen and a Europe that had never before offered a shred of respect to the American arts. This master painter epitomized the Hudson River School, the first original school of painting that the United States had managed to produce in its short history. Church and his contemporaries, following respectfully in the stoic footsteps of painters the likes of Asher Durand and Thomas Cole, brought international interest to their new country, its magnificent landscape, and its capacity for original artistic contributions.
The United States had trouble competing with the rich history that supplied Europe with its evolving styles and subjects in art. The utilitarian view of art by the American people in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, which found relevant only the stagnant fusion of Puritan portraiture mixed with the second-rate European portrait painters who were immigrating at the time, certainly did not make the climate for landscape painting any warmer. The initial wave of landscape painters to make a case for themselves in the first several decades of the nineteenth century, namely Thomas Cole, Asher Durand, and Thomas Doughty, collected in New York City and began to paint the surrounding landscape in a romantic and grand fashion which echoed a new way of painting truly American in its nature, philosophy and methodology.
Far from being taken simply by the power of the rapidly expanding American landscape, the Hudson River School painters sought not only to capture the nature of their homeland at her most beautiful and ferocious. The artists were intent on expressing through their pictures the contagious spirit and optimism that swept through their land and its people, as the country grew in confidence and began to evolve and solidify its own unique philosophy and mentality.
Born in 1826 in Hartford, Connecticut, the young Church discovered his calling early on. His successful father, in agreement to support his young son’s obvious talents and aspirations, appealed to the good nature of family friend Daniel Wadsworth, who in turn appealed to the good nature of his friend the highly acclaimed Thomas Cole. It is doubtless that Wadsworth’s enthusiastic patronage of Cole helped to secure for Frederic Church one of the only two apprenticeships that Cole ever granted, which gave the Church his first break into the world of landscape painting.
Under Cole’s tutelage, Church found success quickly, showing at the National Academy of Design in 1845 and selling his first picture a year later to the Wadsworth Antheneum in Hartford. In 1848 Church secured his first studio in Manhattan and began traveling avidly throughout New England, selling his pictures steadily while evolving the visual material and vocabulary in the ensuing five years that laid the groundwork for a number of subsequent masterpieces.
Among Church’s many New England stops during the summers of 1850 and 1851, Mount Desert Island off the coast of Maine provided the young master with a plethora of visual inspiration. In preparation for larger landscapes, Church would work feverishly during the warmer seasons to build an ever-expanding vocabulary of smaller paintings and studies. Church’s painting during the summers of 1850 and 1851 was of course no exception. In 1851, working from the studies he had amassed in the past several years, Church painted New England Scenery, a landscape painting that has since been heralded as the masterpiece of Church’s youth.
Rough Surf, Mt. Desert Island, Maine, is a supreme example of Church’s creative process and a living testament to his complete fascination with the tension between land and sea. The unique composition bears no sky, interesting enough, and offers the viewer no visible foreground on which to comfortably stand. Seven years later Church would unveil his Niagara masterpiece, a work that received as much enthusiastic praise in the United States as it did from London’s leading critics including John Ruskin, not only for its atmospherics, treatment of water movement, and illustration of the awesome American landscape, but for its unrivaled and unique perspective, preparatory evidence of which can be found in small, powerful pictures such as Rough Surf, Mt. Desert Island, Maine.
One of the distinguishing elements of Church’s unwavering artistic conviction, his powerful use of light, which throughout his career became a point of aggression and even attack by fellow painters and critics alike, inevitably represented one of the catalysts that delivered the formative stages of the Hudson River School to its full blown maturity. Church injected passion, science, and more interpretation into the light which illuminated his majestic landscapes. Parting company from the inexhaustably precise recording of nature so crucial to Cole and Durand, pictures such as Rough Surf allow the viewer a glimpse at Church’s struggle to capture the elements of nature he was painting with a rugged romanticism through the brilliance and contrast of light that exceeded the limits that Cole and Durand had set for themselves.
Church’s sweeping landscapes did away with traditional foreground framing techniques, dispersing the details of the land, sea and sky strategically throughout his paintings with a brilliant palette in a fashion that drew the viewer into the canvas immediately. During the apex of his career in the 1850’s and 1860’s, Church became known as well for his sense of adventure, traveling throughout Central and South America, Jamaica, Newfoundland, Labrador, Europe, Turkey, Greece, Lebanon, Egypt, Russia, and Mexico. Always returning with landscapes to satisfy the imaginations and desires of the American and European public, Church brought new meaning and dedication to the profession landscape painter. Only Albert Beirstadt came close to the worldwide fame of Frederic Church during these years. The career of Frederic Church represents the full maturation of the Hudson River School, and his major contribution proved to Europe that the United States had the capacity to produce original art and artists of its own.