M. Stephen Doherty

M. Stephen Doherty
The editor of Plein Air magazine at work

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Great Landscape Paintings by F.E. Church

The Icebergs (originally The Union), by Frederic E. Church, on display
at the Dallas Museum of Art

The Icebergs, by Frederic Edwin Church, 1861. Collection the
Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas.

Oil Sketchs for The Icebergs

Sunset from Olana, by Frederic Edwin Church, July 2, 1870, oil, 11 1/6 x 15 1/8. Reproduced in the book Glories of the Hudson. Frederic Edwin Church's Views From Olana
(Cornell University Press, 2009).
I've always considered the 19th Century artist Frederic Edwin Church to be one of the greatest landscape painters, in part because I live along the Hudson River that he painted so often, and in part because his technique was so efficient and effective. His oil sketches show how much information can be recorded quickly if one is skilled at handling a bristle brush and various combinations of oil colors. In addition, his skills as a painter were matched by his cleverness in creating dramatic pictures and marketing them expertly. He made a point of painting exotic, unknown locations and exhibiting them in tents set up to make the massive canvases available to the general public.
Take for example, his painting of The Icebergs, one of the jewels in the collection of the Dallas Museum of Art. I had a chance to see the painting during a recent press trip sponsored by the Dallas Sheraton Hotel, and I bought a book on the painting that details its fascinating history. Church first titled the painting was The Union because he wanted to appeal to northern collectors during the Civil War, but he later changed the title when it seemed likely a British collector sympathetic to the Confederacy would purchase the painting.
Church's home in Hudson, New York has become a mecca for landscape painters who admire the 19th century artist as I do, and there is a new book reproducing a number of the oil sketches Church painted from his mountain-top home. Most were done quickly to capture the fleeting colors and light of dawn and dusk, and very few were ever developed into larger studio paintings. The founders of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York acquired a large collection of Church's sketches because they believed they would be instructive to art students. I totally agree with the women who bought the sketches from the artist's estate.


  1. I was introduced to Church's work by one of my teacher in grad school at Indiana University, Bonnie Sklarski, who at that time (1970) considered herself a "disciple" of Church. This was the first time I'd ever seen a contemporary artist lionize a painter from the past like that and it really intrigued me.

    Previously I'd thought we were supposed to hold the art of the past at arm's length. Needless to say, she, and her enthusiasm for Church's landscapes opened a whole new door for me.

    That installation photo of the Icebergs in the Dallas Museum is great. Now that is a presentation!

  2. Church is phenomenal. Though some might consider it bombastic (those who "hold the art of the past at arm's length" as Philip said), I think it is "blow you away painting" at its finest. I think it's a grave mistake for artists to ignore the art of the past - it's so full of life and energy for those with eyes to see it.