by Brooke Chilvers
American songwriter Marc Cohn, of “Walking in Memphis” fame, is likely the only singer/songwriter ever to have been both shot in the head (during a 2005 carjacking in Denver; he can still write and perform) and to have written a musical ode to landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) and his spectacular Hudson River estate, Olana.
They say my final masterpiece
Was this house upon the hill
High above the great and mighty river
My hand could not hold the brushes
Yes, I guess I lost my will
And you can’t keep painting paradise forever
Although Cohn fails to integrate Church’s renowned travels to Newfoundland and Labrador into the lyrics, he does sing of the artist’s painting trips:
From the Andes to Niagara
To where we stand today
I drew the great creations of my master
And traded them for stone and brick and plaster
Cohn is correct that the artist’s resolute travels is what allowed him to marry Isabel Mortimer Carnes and transform their 225-acre hillside farm into one of America’s finest manors, open today to the public as Olana State Historic Site. Its grandiosity was matched only by artist Albert Bierstadt’s sprawling Malkasten, which burned to the ground in 1882.
Perhaps it was the tremendous success of Church’s first panoramic “destination” painting, Niagara, that inspired him to travel to far-off places for subjects to paint. But it was the sudden death of their first two children, of diphtheria in 1865, that sent Frederic and Isabel on the road to Jamaica, Rome, and the Middle East.
Church’s teacher, Thomas Cole (1801–1848), founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painting, taught his student to sketch in oil on site. Thus, Church visited America’s greatest natural wonder, Niagara Falls, four times in 1856, to capture its sea-green foaming wonderfulness and detail from both the American and Canadian sides.
In 1857, the astute 31-year-old son of a Connecticut jeweler and banker displayed his panoramic-sized – more than twice as wide as high (90.5 inches x 40 inches) – composition at a landmark, single-work “Great Painting,” exhibition at Broadway art gallery and print publisher Williams, Stevens and Williams.
There, ingeniously staged in a darkened gallery, and properly lit and hung, the painting’s lack of a traditional foreground put the viewer’s precarious vantage point, from above the great Horseshoe Falls, at the very edge of the rushing water, creating a “total immersion” effect within the mist and clouds.
Although “America’s Mecca” had already been painted hundreds of times by dozens of artists, over several weeks in May, more than 100,000 visitors paid 25 cents admission to see “the finest oil picture ever painted on this side of the Atlantic.” They could also purchase the explanatory pamphlet, and subscribe to the chromolithograph, published by Day & Son, Lithographers to the Queen in London, which cost $30 for an artist’s proof and $15 for a colorized print.
Church quickly became both rich and America’s first world-famous artist when his monumental masterpiece of America’s most illustrious site traveled to Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Richmond, and New Orleans; then to London, Glasgow, Manchester, and Liverpool; and on to Paris for the 1867 Exposition Universelle, where it won a silver medal.
Williams, Stevens and Williams purchased the work and rights to reproduction for $4,500 in 1857. Acquired by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1876, it hangs today in the National Gallery of Art — where it still knocks your socks off.
Financed by American businessman Cyrus West Field, who’d laid the first telegraph line across the Atlantic Ocean and had business ventures in South America, Church made two trips, in 1853 and 1857, in the footsteps of his idol, Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, to Ecuador, Colombia, and Panama.
The result, in 1859, was his largest painting, Heart of the Andes, measuring 10 feet x 5 feet, and 14 feet x 13 feet in its carved wooden casement frame. It was famously exhibited in a pay-for-view “Great Picture” exhibition in the heart of the American art world, the atrium of Manhattan’s Tenth Street Studio Building. Not only did 12,000-plus visitors – including Mark Twain, several times – come to see the result of his nine weeks of sketching in Ecuador on his second trip to South America, Church reputedly met his future wife there.
Although all the individual elements in the painting are accurate, the landscape was never intended as a literal depiction of a specific view of a specific location. Rather, it’s a composite of places, topography, flora, and inhabitants, from the Amazon River basin to the 20,548-foot-high Mount Chimborazo, then thought to be the tallest mountain in the world.
Exhibited in a darkened room at eye-level, and reportedly illuminated by gas jets concealed behind silver reflectors, visitors could study its Humboldtian natural history, including some 100 identifiable plants, through the opera glasses provided, or described in two printed companion pamphlets. The heavy, drawn curtains gave the sensation of crossing its windowlike frame into the landscape itself.
For two years, Heart of the Andes traveled to London, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis, before selling for $10,000 – the most ever paid to a living American artist – to businessman William Tilden Blodgett, a founder of both the American Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it has hung since 1909.
Church’s 1859 travels around Newfoundland and Labrador were closely followed by the press, as was his progress on his Arctic-inspired works, especially his 5.4 foot x 9.4 foot painting, The Icebergs (1861).
In spite of its theatrical display, among emerald carpets, deep purple sofas, and crimson draping, making the viewer “forget the gallery, the ostentatious frame, to sail out unawares into one of God’s primeval solitudes,” the public’s attention had switched to the Civil War. When the painting did not sell in New York or Boston, before it traveled to London, Church added the ship’s mast – perhaps alluding to the lost Franklin expedition – to give context to this more abstract rendition.
The Icebergs sold in London in 1863, then disappeared for 78 years. Its reappearance, in 1979, put Hudson River School landscapes back in the game when it was bought at auction for $2.5 million, the (then) third-largest amount ever for an auctioned piece of art. It hangs in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts.
Although Church went on to paint other works recalling his travels, including Aurora Borealis and Cotopaxi, Frederic and Isabel loved enchanting Olana, and successfully raised a further four children there, traveling later in life mostly for health reasons.
Perhaps Cohn, speaking for Church, is correct when he sings:
I was lost until Olana
How sweet the sound
They say my final masterpiece
Was this house upon the hill.
Brooke Chilvers is disappointed that no school trip during her entire New York City education ever took her to Olana State Historic Site. “If one had, who knows, I might have become an artist.”