"El Rio de Luz (River of Light)," National Gallery of Art
From this vantage point, the jungle parts: A spill of hazy but brilliant light
spills down onto gently rippling water. On the left a dense tangle of foliage. To the right a stream of pale large winged birds skimming above and away
from the river. At the far end another opening where two or three tiny people in a boat are drifting through. Above, a hazy bright sun.
Step a little closer. The white birds with widely spread wings tipped with
red, probably storks, are more numerous that you thought and not a cloud but a cluster of feathered arrows flying up and out of sight. On the left
perch two vivid red birds, maybe trogons. Below them the foliage appears in its various colors from green to brown to red, and in various states from
dead logs to lively fronds and flowers.
Step as close as you can to the canvas and peer closely. Observe that the
foliage is not a mass of dark and pale green, yellow and brown: Each leaf and frond, every wood surface and flower, each branch and wood surface
have been individually drawn and colored and angled in such a way that a landscape which originally appeared still and static has become a riot of
colors and textures. Note the various heights and widths of the ripples in the surface of the river, the several directions the storks are flying, the way
the trogons perch each in its own position. Let your eyes slowly move down the fall of light in the center, and marvel at the subtle gradations of intensity and color.
If the scale, subject, and setting haven't already suggested it, this acute
attention to detail should tell you that this painting is the product of Frederic Edwin Church.
Born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1826, Frederic Edwin Church aspired
from an early age to be a painter and early showed great talent in drawing. In 1844 at the age of 18 he began two years' study with Thomas Cole,
America's preeminent landscape painter and founder of the Hudson River School. In 1845, he debuted at the National Academy of Design's annual
show, and in 1849, became the youngest artist ever elected to full membership in the National Academy at only 23.
Church traveled the world, drawn by both natural beauty and interest in
different cultures. But in my opinion, his greatest pictures are his depictions of nature in its grandest manifestations, such as "El Rio de Luz
(River of Light)," above, his many images of Central and South American volcanoes, his magnificent "Niagara," and two stunning Arctic scenes,
"Aurora Borealis" and "Icebergs," which many consider to Church's greatest painting.
"Cotopaxi," Smithsonian American Art Museum
"Niagara," National Gallery of Art
"Aurora Borealis," Smithsonian American Art Museum
"Icebergs," Dallas Museum of Art
The latter two, in particular, go well beyond simple depiction and enter the
realm of symbol and metaphor. "Aurora," with its rendering of an ice-locked boat, suggests the smallness of humans in the face of nature's
power and grandeur, and "Icebergs" presents that grandeur in all its raw power and awesomeness. But even in these monumental works, Church's
meticulous realism and attention to detail are evident. Note the subtle variations in color in "Icebergs," for example, and the bit of broken mast at
the bottom, suggesting—like "Aurora"—the always present danger to humans of the darker side of nature's power even as its beauty remains alluring.
In 1870, Church created one of his greatest masterpieces, not a painting
this time, but his remarkable home Olana near Hudson, New York, overlooking the river and in view of Catskill, the home of his mentor,
Thomas Cole. Inspired by his travels in the Middle East, this palatial house is worthy of its own essay. (Watch this space.)
Frederic Edwin Church died in 1900 at the age of 73. He leaves behind a
truly spectacular legacy of work. For me, he is America's greatest painter and I urge the reader to seek out his art, whether online or—better—in person.
Frederic Edwin Church, By Mathew Brady
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Brady-Handy Photograph Collection., Public Domain,