Frederic Church and the fall of civilizations
By: Sammy Feldblum
Frederic Church, a painter who deals most often in ecological splendor, did not forget humanity in his earthly wanderings. His eye for the man-made is on view now at Winston-Salem’s Reynolda House in a collection of work from a trip around the Mediterranean. From 1867–1869, after losing his first two children to diphtheria, Church left the devastation of the war-ravaged United States for the balmier climes of Rome, Greece, and the Near East. He returned with a head full of sights to delight crowds back home.
As curator and head of the department of American art at the Detroit Institute of Art Kenneth Myers, Ph.D., writes, Church was already “the most famous painter in America” by the time of his trip, renowned for his grand landscapes from his travels in South America. In a time before international news wires, his shows offered glimpses of exotic foreign lands to the public. One of his most famous natural scenes, “The Andes of Ecuador” (1855), is included in this show, and demonstrates many of Church’s trademarks: abundant, sylvan vegetation; relentlessly detailed canvasses with near everything in focus at once; and a sun painted so realistically that the viewer squints and diverts their eyes.
Traveling through the Mediterranean, Church had his mind on questions of civilization, and more particularly its ruin. As with his landscapes, he massaged the components of these paintings into their most dramatic arrangements. In “Springtime in the Levant” (1878), the ruins do not correspond to any particular site, but instead are a jumble of what the painter encountered as he traveled through present-day Greece, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine and Jordan.
Sketches for the standout “Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives” (1870) show Church orient an initially realistic portrait of the city with increasing flair. By Church’s final rendition, olive trees replace a stolid hillside at the painting’s bottom right, gnarled and glistening in his dotted sunlight. The hillside has cleaved into a tumbling valley. Catty-cornered, clouds rear up heavy as a crashing ocean wave above the old city.
That theme—of humanity ravished by the natural world—reappears in “Evening on the Sea,” (1877-1878). A small barge belches a cloud of black smoke as night falls. But the barge is almost incidental to the larger drama of the picture—the warm embrace of clouds turned a rich salmon by sunset, the cool breath of a rising blue moon, a black ocean kissed by the reflection of the fire above.
Church’s attention elsewhere on civilizations past was timely, the viewer imagines, with the American Civil War so fresh. A painting of the Parthenon from 1871 shows that magnificent building sitting dusty in the light of the golden hour, a great blue sky shining above. Curiously, a man in a clownish get-up leans on one marble piece, looking away from the Parthenon. With the magnificence of human ingenuity and its sad fate in the face of time in full evidence, the fool looks awkwardly away.
Upon his return to the United States, Church built a structure to echo those he had found on his travels: Olana, a mansion of brick and stone sporting obvious Arabic architectural influences in upstate New York. Photographs of the mansion appear in the show. It sits atop a hillside, overlooking forested hills and the Hudson below. Through its windows, the glory of the natural world stares back.
The second half of the exhibition is made up mostly of chopped and screwed stone ruins. “Ruins at Baalbek” (1868), softer than Church’s other large-scale work, offers a haunting vision of three columns standing in an otherwise empty world.
“Syria by the Sea” (1873), on the other hand, is Church gone maximal: he incorporates Greco-Roman temples, an Ottoman stone gate, a castle built by crusaders and his trademark gleam of light cutting through the middle of the architectural pastiche. Busy with so many bygone civilizations, it reads like the fall of all humanity.
But amid the ruination, a procession of people and camels trudges. The ghosts of the past loom gigantically, impossible and dreamlike. Below, in a more intimate setting, life goes humbly on.
Reynolda House will host “The Finest Eye: A Symposium on Frederic Church” on April 21 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Myers will be joined by Jennifer Raab, Ph.D., and Timothy Barringer, Ph.D., both history of art professors at Yale University. Tickets are $15 for members and students and $30 for the general public. A light reception will follow. Frederic Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage exhibition ends on May 13.
Sammy Feldblum lives in Asheville and writes across the region. Whenever he travels for work, he makes sure to bring his 102 Jamz super sticker along.