Review: Illustrated book sheds new light on artist Frederic Church

Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about the artist Frederic Church, along

Just when you thought you knew everything there was to know about the artist Frederic Church, along comes Gerald Carr.

Carr’s “Frederic Edwin Church: Romantic Landscapes and Seascapes” is a complement to a new exhibition of 40 paintings at the Adelson on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

Carr, a Church scholar, wrote three essays to accompany the plates of the paintings in the catalog. Carr has spent much time at Olana, Church’s home near Hudson, studying the artist. He wrote about this experience in the photography book “Olana Landscapes,” published by Rizzoli in 1989.

Many paintings in the exhibition, and thus in the book, are in private collections and have rarely appeared in public before. Some from other museums, such as “Heart of the Andes” from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, rarely have been lent.

Next Best Thing

If you like Frederic Church or the Hudson River School of painting, this exhibition is probably a must-see experience. If you cannot attend the exhibition, then reading the book and looking at the color plates in it will be the next best thing. It is loaded with color plates, 112 of them which are done in an achingly sharp, high-quality manner. Many are large, covering two pages.

While the illustrations are praiseworthy, it is the paintings themselves and Carr’s essays that make the book truly noteworthy.

Art or history lovers know some of Church’s works. At Olana, his painting of Niagara Falls is so realistic that you may fear being swept over Horseshoe Falls. Church’s paintings of South American landscapes, such as a view of the volcano Cotopaxi, have appeared in previous books about him, the Hudson or Catskills — as have paintings of Hudson River and Catskill sunsets, sunrises and skies.

“Church” moves beyond previous books by showing paintings at faraway locations or in private collections. “View From Olana in the Snow” is so real it looks like a photograph.

Because of this book, I have two new favorite Church paintings, which are privately held and have not appeared in prints or previous books.

The painting “Beacon, Off Mount Desert Island” foreshadows the work of Winslow Homer and reminds me of many sunrises that I have seen at the shore on Long Island. “The Meteor of 1860” shows a meteor streaking across a dusk sky, starting to break into smaller pieces. The reality of the scene is enhanced by the way that he paints the glow of the meteor on the lake below.

Depicting Light

Church’s gift for depicting light provides the storyline for Carr’s first essay, “Seeing the Light.” He observes, “The thing that most energized Church as an artist was light. Light splashes his painted surfaces and radiates, or seems to radiate, from beneath them.”

He goes on to explore how Church scrupulously copied the natural ingredients in his paintings, although he would occasionally rearrange them, without violating natural law, for artistic effect. He describes some of the many trips that Church took to gather subject matter, such as a visit to the Arctic to learn about icebergs for several paintings. Carr shows how contemporary scientists, such as Alexander Humboldt, influenced his work.

A second essay discusses recently discovered articles about Church in contemporary newspapers. From these, Carr goes into a broader discussion about how newspapers, the dominant media of the day, covered art in general and Church in particular.

The last essay is about Olana the place. Some parts repeat a sentence or paragraph that appeared in “Olana Landscapes,” but the essay contains enough new information that it is not a reprint of previous work.

If you go to Olana, the delightful house gives visitors a feeling of well-being. In his essay “Church’s Olana: A New Eden,” Carr explains the history of Church and his family designing and overseeing construction of the house. He concludes, “If there is one basic idea that makes Olana intelligible today, it is this: Olana is a landscape painter’s house.” Of the homes of artists Thomas Cole and Julian Alden Weir, Carr observes “you can’t tell by looking at them that landscape painters lived there.” He goes on to catalog the features that made Olana so well-suited for Church to paint landscapes.

Gaining Background

This book appears to me to assume a reader has basic knowledge of Church. If you are new to this artist, you might want to read Barbara Babcock Millhouse’s “American Wilderness” first, to get a sense of how Church related to the other Hudson River School artists.

But if you decide to just jump right into “Church,” you will still enjoy the experience. Carr offers good insights and the artwork must be seen to be believed.

‘Frederic Edwin Church: Romantic Landscapes and Seascapes’

AUTHOR: Gerald L. Carr

PUBLISHER: Adelson Galleries, distributed by University Press of New England, 136 pages, hardcover ISBN 0-997441621-7-5

HOW MUCH: $50

The exhibition of Church paintings at Adelson Galleries, 19 E. 82nd St., New York City is on display from now until Saturday, March 1, 2008. More information is available at 212-439-800 or at www.adelsongalleries.com.

Categories: Life and Arts

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