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The American Landscape's "Quieter Spirit": Early Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church
June 25, 2005 - January 4, 2006
The Seattle Art Museum highlighted a major work in its intimate collection of American art in the exhibit The American Landscape's "Quieter Spirit": Early Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church, held through January 4, 2006. This exhibition of four masterworks by Church presented a focused look at a group of paintings that were important in the artist's work between 1848-1854 and featured two rarely exhibited paintings. This exhibition showed the series of works that led up to the creation of the Seattle Art Museum's great Church painting, A Country Home (1854).
Curated by Patricia Junker, Seattle Art Museum's Curator of American Art, The American Landscape's "Quieter Spirit" explored paintings steeped in the artist's subject of home in the American wilderness. The exhibition united four seminal paintings from Church's formative period: To the Memory of Cole (1848), Evening After a Storm (1849) a critically acclaimed painting that has not been on public view since 1849; New England Landscape (ca. 1849) from the Amon Carter Museum, TX, long thought to have been the critically acclaimed Evening After a Storm; and Seattle Art Museum's A Country Home (1854).
Church began his career in the studio of Thomas Cole (1801-1848), popularly known as the father of landscape painting in America. In contrast to the tradition of painting grand allegorical and historical subjects, in the manner of Europe's Old Masters, Cole's first paintings celebrated American scenic views. He was interested in history and allegory to show how the natural world reflected the American spirit and imbued his canvases with moral and Christian overtones. The exhibition illustrates how Church, Cole's first student, followed in his mentor's footsteps.
The first work in the exhibition To the Memory of Cole was created two months after Cole's death. In this poignant composition a cross is placed in a rendering of the landscape around Cole's home in the Catskill, New York. This is the only one of the four paintings which invokes Cole's name directly, yet the other paintings which followed were just as much tributes to Cole in their reference to a subject that he had popularized, the home in the American wilderness theme.
After unveiling To the Memory of Cole, Church set out on a summer-long sketching trip to upstate New York and New England. The sketches from his visit to Pittsford in rural Vermont resulted in the painting Evening After a Storm. The work proved a critical success and was purchased from Church by the American Art-Union. Not long afterwards however, the painting went missing and was not rediscovered until very recently. The painting varied from Cole's influence in so far as the composition is highly original for Church, and is not at all like Cole's earlier compositions. Also importantly, the scenery and landscape are not a background for a larger human drama, as they were in Cole's art; instead nature is the potent conveyor of meaning in and of itself. In this scene of a glistening wet garden and orchard is represented nature's cycle of cleansing and renewal, and the scene seems the symbolic parallel for spiritual life, the progress of humankind and the course of history.
At about this same time he painted New England Landscape, a pastoral landscape also based on his sketches from rural Vermont. The work is more closely associated with Cole's influence than Evening After a Storm, but since its acquisition by the Amon Carter Museum in 1973 it was thought to be the lost 1849 painting. Only with the recent rediscovery of Evening After a Storm can viewers appreciate Church's varied renderings of this time-honored theme.
By the 1850s, public sentiment had shifted from appreciation of untouched American nature as a manifestation of the handwork of the divinity to a strong, nationalistic feeling that cultivated nature and the settled landscape actually represented God's will for the American wilderness. Church created a number of magnificent variations on this theme, one of which is Seattle Art Museum's impressive A Country Home, of 1854. The painting focuses on the inherent beauty of a pioneer homestead and was praised by critics when it was first exhibited in 1854 as "one of the best works of the year". Coincidentally it was exhibited in the same year that Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) published his famous journal Walden, his celebration of solitary life in the midst of the country's rapid urban and industrial growth. Although it certainly struck a particular chord in 1854, A Country Home was a refinement of an idea Church had been developing since 1849.
A Country Home turned out to be Church's last painting idealizing the New England landscape as a comfortable realm of humankind and nature. In 1853 he made his first sketching trip abroad, to South America. From that point forward his name was associated with detailed views in that exotic locale. When he did return to painting New England scenery in 1860, his works were imbued with a sense of paradise lost. His subjects were now more often the dark and desolate wilderness that reflected the mood of an artist whose nation was wracked by civil war. Even his scenes of South America's sleeping volcanoes seem much more in sync with the mood of a nation at war with itself than any celebrations of America as an enduring land of peace and plenty.
In an adjacent gallery Patricia Junker hung 19th century landscape paintings from the Seattle Art Museum's collection. The installation included works by Sanford Gifford, Albert Bierstadt, John Frederick Kensett, and Cleveland Rockwell. Those paintings were on view through January 2, 2006.
The American Landscape's "Quieter Spirit" is a collection insight exhibition which strives to reveal new perspectives on art and cultural history within the context of the museum's permanent collection.
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