Frederick Edwin Church saw the world as one physical entity, and he wanted to show it to us that way.
We are looking down; the view is dizzying. We see rocky mountainsides and water lying on and tumbling over rocky surfaces and a rushing, spray-surrounded fall of water, all through a veil of rain. And yet the scene is full of light. It glows off the waterfall, off the crags around it, off the water behind it. The slanting rays of the sun behind the clouds and rain fill them with color. A beautiful double rainbow circles the waterfall and links the mountains to the palms, trees and bushes that make an island of green where two tiny figures stand. The abundant vegetation lies against the mountains, as if superimposed. There are patches of blue sky above, patches of sunlight on the mountains and greenery below.
You can tell that Frederic Edwin Church was one of those painters who was fascinated by light. You can also see that he took pains to compose his pictures well, bringing the different elements together in a way that pleases the eye and arouses the emotions. What is less obvious is that here he used elements that did not go together naturally.
The mountains you see on the left are from sketches made in the Ecuadorian Andes; the lush vegetation on the right is from sketches made in Jamaica. Here he unites them in one picture, linked by the beauty of the double rainbow. They look as if they go together; the detail in the picture makes the scene seem real.
Church was responding to the ideas expressed by the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt challenged others to travel and observe, as he had. Church took up the challenge, and traveled widely outside his native North America, sketching scenes that would later become the bases for large, carefully presented works. Many other artists traveled around North America and to Europe and the Near East; he also traveled south to places like Ecuador, Colombia and Jamaica and north to the Arctic.
Humboldt believed that the physical world existed in harmony, that all it’s separate parts were related and worked together. He brought careful detailed observations together in his writings to show how and why this was so. Church brought the same ideas to his work as an artist, bringing different parts of the world he observed in detail together in the same image, to create a picture in which the harmony could be seen.
He was bringing the world together in a different way.
A pity that we cannot so easily bring our own world together!
More of Church’s paintings, courtesy of brendaofohio: