Frederic Edwin Church Hudson River School South American Paintings

Before social media influencers, travel channels, and even National Geographic, there was Frederic Edwin Church. In the mid nineteenth century America had its first major art movement, the Hudson River School. The name comes from a picturesque area of upstate New York that these artists regularly painted. While Church, a key figure in the movement,  painted American landscapes, some of his best known work was of other countries.   
 
What really interested Frederic Edwin Church was capturing the rugged areas of nature that were disappearing due to society’s expansion. Church’s philosophy on art was greatly influenced by Alexander Homboldt, a Prussian naturalist, and explorer. Homboldt believed artists could convey the divine harmony of the natural world through their paintings.
 

South America, from a distance

Cotopaxi by Frederic Edwin Church
Cotopaxi

“Cotopaxi,” from 1855, follows a specific template Church would return to often. The view in the painting does not exist in the real world, but Church wanted to give viewers a birds-eye view of the various climates found in Ecuador. His solution was to cut and paste. By doing this he can capture the ice-capped volcano Cotopaxi in the Andes, as well as the various micro-climates that lead down to the Amazon. 

Heart of the Andes

South America, Up Close

Morning in the Tropics by Frederick Edwin Church
Morning in the Tropics

While Church traveled he would make copious charcoal, and oil sketches. After his travels he returned to his New York studio to paint. This distance from the actual landscapes allowed memory to mix with fact. It’s like how our mind remembers that perfect sunset as brighter, and fuller than an actual photo. In “Morning in the Tropics” Church created an intangible luminosity that highlights both the hazy morning sun on the river, and the details of river foliage. 

How He Created Art Blockbusters

Niagara by Frederic Edwin Church
Niagara

Church would frequently exhibit a single painting, and charge visitors 25 cents admission. In 1857, he did this with “Niagara,” a large scale view of Horseshoe Falls from the Canadian side of the river. Church found a way to create a unique, and somewhat harrowing glimpse of the waterfall. In two weeks time, over 100,000 people came to see the spectacle, some of them even brought binoculars. After New York, “Niagara” traveled up and down the East Coast, then headed to Europe. 

Church was immensely popular for the majority of his life. His early successes allowed him to maintain a comfortable lifestyle even as the public moved on from the oversize landscapes of the Hudson River School. The movement did not stay in obscurity for long. Interest was rekindled in the works of the Church, and his peers by the 1940s. 

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Kristin Johnson

I love art, and writing. One is deeply personal, the other helped me get my BA in journalism from IU. I am passionate about storytelling. My greatest professional compliment came from a business owner who said, “Your profile piece captured everything I believe about my business.”
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