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Photo: Paul Macapia

A Country Home

1854

Frederic Edwin Church

born Hartford, Connecticut,1826; died New York City,1900

A Country Home was one of the most acclaimed paintings of Frederic Church's early career. Why? What inspired Church to paint A Country Home? What might the subject have meant to the artist, a young painter from Hartford, Connecticut, newly established on the art scene in New York in the early 1850s when he conceived of this picture? And what made this painting so appealing to the public at that time? To learn more about the artist's inspiration and the appreciation that viewers have had for this painting in the nineteenth century and today, follow the paths of inquiry that we offer here.


Oil on canvas, 32 x 51 in. (81.3 x 129.5 cm.), Gift of Mrs. Paul C. Carmichael, 65.80,

Signed: Signed and dated lower right, F. Church/1854

Provenance: General Joseph Gardner Swift (1783-1865), Geneva, New York; to his son-in-law Peter Richards, Jr. (1811-1892), Brooklyn and Geneva, New York, by 1862-1892; bequeathed to his daughter, Margaret W. Richards (died 1923), Geneva. New York; to her grand niece, Anna Robeson Baker (Mrs. Paul C. Carmichael, 1900-1975), Seattle, 1926-1965; gift to Seattle Art Museum, 1965

location
Now on view at Seattle Art Museum

The hand of man generally improves a landscape. The earth has been given to him, and his presence in Eden is natural. He gives life and spirit to the garden.

The Home Book of the Picturesque, 1851

What Inspired A Country Home?

To understand the genesis of Frederic Church's painting A Country Home and the appeal of this subject to Church and his audience, we need to look at the historical events surrounding its creation and its place in the development of Church's art.

A Country Home, 1854, Frederic Edwin Church, 65.80   Photo: Paul Macapia

The Evolution of A Country Home

To the Memory of Cole, 1848, Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1836-1900, oil on canvas, 42 x 49 in.   Private Collection, Seattle  

Thomas Cole's sudden death in February 1848 stunned the art world. The intensity of Church's feeling at the loss of his mentor can be measured in the extraordinary work that occupied him in the weeks immediately following Cole's death. By April 1848, Church had completed a poignant, richly detailed landscape that was a symbolic memorial to Cole.

This work was not to be his only tribute. As Church continued to honor Cole's legacy in his art, all that he had admired in his teacher and friend came forth in his next paintings, each an exquisitely rendered variation on a theme Cole had popularized, especially with his painting The Hunter's Return. In developing a subject that he and others associated closely with Cole, Church paid homage to his mentor while gaining recognition as Cole's most talented and worthy successor.

Click on the images below to continue the story.

Evening After a Storm, 1849, Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826-1900, oil on canvas, 25 x 36 in.   Private Collection  

The recent discovery of this long-lost canvas from 1849 allows us to see how Church began to develop the "home-in-the-wilderness" theme in the months following the death of his teacher and mentor, Thomas Cole, in February 1848.

The view is composed of vignettes that Church sketched near Pittsford, Vermont, on his summertime rambles in 1848. The scene is not specifically a tribute to country life, however. The setting is almost incidental to the real subject—the magnificent sunset and its glistening effect on the wet landscape. The painting is a sky study. Church even chose to title it Evening After a Storm, disassociating it from any particular place and focusing our attention on the passing clouds. The stunning effect was described in 1849 as that of "a veil lifting to reveal the theatrical display of light and shadow patterns playing before us through the landscape below."

New England Landscape, ca. 1849, Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826-1900, oil on canvas, 25 1/8 x 36 1/4 in.   Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1979.11  

About the time he created Evening After a Storm, Church conceived of the painting now known only by a descriptive title, New England Landscape. This painting is a very different interpretation of the same rural Vermont landscape. It is not a dramatic sunset sky study. It is a highly detailed, idyllic scene of picnickers on a millpond, idling on a late-summer afternoon. The scene is bathed in brilliant light. This painting shows that Church's interest extended to every element of the greatly varied setting.

What was it about rural scenery that Church and his enthusiastic audience found so compelling? The settled landscapes of old New England were the first expressions of a population's pioneer spirit. They offered a congenial view of America as a land of enduring peace and plenty, of self-reliant country folk piously devoted to nature. "The hand of man generally improves a landscape," one observer declared in 1851, writing in the popular magazine The Home Book of the Picturesque. "The earth has been given to him, and his presence in Eden is natural; he gives life and spirit to the garden."

Title page, Walden, 1854, Henry David Thoreau, American, 1817-1862   Donated by Corbis-Bettmann. ©CORBIS/Bettmann, IH059814  

The subject of A Country Home clearly held enduring personal meaning for Church, and this particular painting proved to be critical to his early success. The painting was first exhibited in the same year that Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) published Walden; or, Life in the Woods, the account of his months of seclusion in a cabin on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. The sentiments that Church and Thoreau expressed in their respective celebrations of the solitary life were conveyed as well by other thoughtful artists and writers in this period as they became more aware of the implications of the country's rapid urban and industrial growth.

A Country Home would be the last picture in which Church so lovingly created the calm and perfectly harmonious world of rural New England. Why did Church turn away from a theme that had dominated his painting for some five years—a theme that had established his reputation and that resonated with something fundamental in his character?

Chimborazo, 1855, Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826-1900, oil on canvas, 48 x 84 in.   Courtesy of the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California, 89.1  

Having traveled to South America in the summer of 1853, Church must have begun to recognize the conceptual limitations of New England scenery and was attracted by the lure of new realms. The fact that in 1854, a writer had harshly criticized the repetition that he felt now characterized Church's work could have further motivated the artist to explore fresh subjects. In South America, Church had observed more exotic splendors of nature, and he had studied them with a naturalist's eye. Strangeness in nature was now as appealing to him as the familiar landscape had been.

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860, Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826-1900, oil on canvas, 40 x 64 in.   Copyright © The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund  

In 1860, when Church returned again to painting New England scenery, it was not with the same sense of pleasure and optimism that are so obvious in his picturesque views of the country home. Now he seemed to paint with a sense of paradise lost. His subjects are the dark and desolate wilderness. Do these paintings of the 1860s reflect the mood of an artist whose nation was wracked by civil war? Pictures of America as an enduring land of peace and plenty must have seemed out of sync with those turbulent years.

The Painting and the Public

Varnishing Day at the New York Academy of Design, May 7, 1870 from Harper's Weekly, p. 292, wood engraving  

A Country Home was unveiled to the public in April 1854, at the popular annual exhibition of New York's National Academy of Design, the most important showcase for contemporary artists at that time. The National Academy of Design, founded in 1826, was the first institution in the United States established and managed by professional artists. It was an art school and an exhibition space: "There shall be an annual exhibition of works of living artists," the academy's by-laws stated. The academy further stipulated that an artist's submission for exhibition could not be a work of art that had been exhibited at any other academy annual. Each yearly show was guaranteed to consist of new works by a wide range of artists. The academy shows were much anticipated, and an eager audience turned out in great numbers to see each exhibition's new offerings. Critics lavished attention on the annual exhibitions. Their voluminous descriptions, written in an age before photography enabled newspapers and magazines to illustrate works of art for readers, are important sources of information about individual works of art and the appreciation of these paintings in their time.

Portrait of Joseph Gardner Swift, ca. 1812, engraving   Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Office of History  

General Joseph Gardner Swift was the first owner of A Country Home. He probably bought the painting after admiring it in the 1854 exhibition of the National Academy of Design. Swift's estate records show that he was not exactly an art collector—he possessed only a very few family portraits in addition to the Church canvas. We can only speculate about the appeal that this particular picture had for him.

In 1854, Swift was living as a country gentleman in upstate New York, in the rural town of Geneva, in a landscape much like the one Church painted. Perhaps the subject of A Country Home represented to Swift something of his own circumstance, living quietly along the shore of Lake Geneva. It is also possible that Swift bought the painting on the advice of his good friend, painter Daniel Huntington, who as president of the National Academy of Design must have recognized Church as a rare and rising young talent.

Artist

Frederic Edwin Church

born Hartford, Connecticut,1826; died New York City,1900

The son of a wealthy Hartford businessman, Frederic Church enjoyed an extraordinary measure of family support in his desire to work as an artist. He first studied briefly with two local artists, Alexander Hamilton Emmons (1816-1884) and Benjamin Hutchins Coe (1799-1883). Through his father's business connections with Daniel Wadsworth, a prominent Hartford art patron and founder of the city's first public art museum, Church then entered the tutelage of America's most celebrated landscape painter, Thomas Cole. In 1844, when he was eighteen, Church moved from Hartford to Cole's home in Catskill, New York, on the Hudson River, and over the course of the next two years became Cole's protégé and close friend. Church also helped in his own way to make the Hudson River landscape famous in art.

By 1857, Church was the most celebrated painter in America, renowned in both the United States and Great Britain for his views of American and South American scenery.

Frederic E. Church, ca. 1855-1865, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection  
Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, LC-DIG-cwpbh-02727

Timeline

The Early Years of Frederic Church's Time, Life and Work

1825

Thomas Cole's first landscape paintings are exhibited in New York and purchased by eminent artists.

1831

Charles Darwin embarks on a five-year voyage aboard HMS Beagle as the ship's naturalist; Nat Turner leads unsuccessful slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia.

1836

Cole publishes "Essay on American Scenery" to inspire landscape painters; Ralph Waldo Emerson publishes Nature.

1844

Church enters Cole's studio in Catskill, New York, becoming Cole's first pupil; Samuel F.B. Morse sends the first telegraph message: "What hath God wrought!"

1848

Cole dies suddenly in Catskill, on February 11.

1849

Scottish missionary David Livingstone begins explorations on the African continent.

1850

Fugitive Slave Act enacted by U.S. Congress.

1853

U.S. Congress authorizes survey for transcontinental railroad; Church makes his first visit to South America.

1854

Henry David Thoreau publishes Walden; or, Life in the Woods; Church exhibits A Country Home.

1857

Church makes his second visit to South America.

1859

Charles Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species; Church exhibits his monumental canvas Heart of the Andes.

1860

Abraham Lincoln is elected sixteenth U.S. president; South Carolina secedes from the Union; Church paints Twilight in the Wilderness.

Church Studies with Thomas Cole

In 1844, when Church entered Thomas Cole's tutelage, Cole was at the height of his fame as the country's premier painter of American scenery. His renown came from his sudden and unprecedented success in that genre and from his achievement in establishing landscape painting as an American artist's highest calling. In a period when his countrymen largely aspired to follow the tradition of painting allegorical and historical subjects in the manner of Europe's Old Masters, Cole arrived in New York in 1825 as a painter of American scenic views, and thereafter his reputation soared.

Through his art, writing and lecturing, and by his pious devotion to nature, Cole became a highly revered figure among painters and poets of the 1830s and 1840s. (In the painting shown here, Cole is with his dear friend, nature poet William Cullen Bryant.) Cole's followers were the first generation of American artists and writers to claim a place for their interpretations of American scenery among the noblest traditions of art.

Kindred Spirits, 1849, Asher B. Durand, 1796-1886, oil on canvas, 44 x 36 in.   Courtesy Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas  

"I have frequently heard of the beautiful and romantic scenery around Catskill. . . it would give me the greatest pleasure to accompany you in your rambles about the place observing nature in all her various appearances," Church wrote to Cole in May 1844. He confided, "I have never before this spring attempted to paint from nature, but of all employments (as far as I have had experience) I think that the most delightful." Eventually, Cole's instruction to Church was precisely along these same lines—"paint things as you see them." Sketching in the landscape was the principal means by which master and pupil developed their art.

Church came to love the landscape around Cole's home in Catskill, with its picturesque views westward across Kaaterskill (or Catskill) Creek to the fabled Catskill Mountains beyond. In the 1860s, when Church had the chance to build the home that he desired, he chose a site just across the Hudson from Cole's home, one that commanded the same view.

The Catskill Creek, 1845, Frederic Edwin Church, 1826-1900, oil on pine panel, 11 7/8 x 16 in.   Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation  

When Church arrived at Cole's Catskill home, Cedar Grove, in June 1844, Cole was just beginning work on an ambitious canvas addressing a distinctly American experience, the settlement of the wilderness. That painting, The Hunter's Return, clearly made a deep impression on Church, who would have seen the composition evolve over the ensuing months in 1844 and early 1845.

Although Cole's painting is thoroughly grounded in his experience in various wilderness locales and is based in part on sketches he made in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, The Hunter's Return is an allegorical painting—"a higher style of landscape," as Cole once described his conceptions. The American landscape was inspirational to Cole not so much for what it revealed about the natural world—what we might think of as the lure of landscape—but for what it reflected of ourselves. This peaceful scene of homesteading in the wilderness was for Cole a symbol of the American people's pioneer spirit. The subject of a home in the wilderness struck a chord with artists and viewers in the late 1840s and 1850s. It is no coincidence that this subject came to dominate Church's art in the first years of his career.

The Hunter's Return, 1845, Thomas Cole, American, 1801-1848, oil on canvas, 40 1/8 x 60 1/2 in.   Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1983.156  

At Home on the Hudson

"About an hour this side of Albany is the Center of the World—I own it."

—Church to sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer, July 7, 1869

Olana—the very name evokes a sense of mystery and exoticism that still surrounds Church's perfectly preserved hilltop home high above Hudson, New York. It is an appropriate name for the house Church designed for himself to encapsulate all that he loved in art and life. Olana is an old Latin name of a place in Persia. One story holds that Church's wife chose to call their home Olana following her family's extended stay in the Near East in 1867-69. The name was deemed appropriate probably because the home site must have seemed reminiscent of an ancient citadel, perhaps like places the Churches had visited. It is also possible that Olana is a corruption of the Arabic "Al'ana," which means "our place on high."

Church's place on high gave him an unbounded view of a landscape that had first inspired him to paint—a view down to the home of his beloved teacher, Thomas Cole, on the opposite shore of the Hudson, and westward to the Catskills in the distance. Olana was a place designed for picture making. In its exotic interiors, the house was also a place for reflection on a wide world, a rich past, and the foundations of art and learning.

Exterior of Olana, Church's home in New York   Photo: Orlando L. Cano, Jr., Albany, NY, licensed under Creative Commons  

"'Persian, adapted to the occident,' Church described the style of his house. This is fitting for the man who wrote from Rome that Syria was the only country in the Old World to which he cared to return . . . Photographs of Persians and things Persian, objects from any point east of Constantinople, books on Islamic architecture and travels in the Holy Land, Arabic dictionaries, Bedouin gowns and guns, and 'three white Bagdad donkeys from Beyrout' helped to keep the other side of the world vitally present at Olana. Olana was the meeting place of East and West."

—From David C. Huntington, The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era (New York: George Braziller, 1966)

Interior of Olana: "Main staircase from court hall to second floor, looking northeast," photograph   Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, HABS, Reproduction number HABS NY,11-HUD,1-13  

"As a landscape painter Church was well prepared to make the most of the possibilities of Olana's topography. During his late years when he was often unable to paint, he seems to have found the 'laying out' of views a major source of satisfaction: 'I have made about one and three quarters miles of road this season, opening entirely new and beautiful views—I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the Studio.'"

—From David C. Huntington, The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era (New York: George Braziller, 1966)

View from Olana   Photo: Orlando L. Cano, Jr., Albany, NY, licensed under Creative Commons  

The Painter as Explorer

The now commonly used label "Hudson River School" is actually an inappropriate term to describe Church and the artists of his generation. The phrase was coined in the late 1870s by artists and critics as a term of derision for earlier painters, most of whom had been trained in New York and maintained studios there. However, that generation of painters was highly adventuresome, making expeditions to far-off places—the American West, the Arctic, South America, the Near East—and recording these still-little-known and unfamiliar sites in their paintings. They might have lived and worked along the Hudson River, but these painters demonstrated their independent spirits in the adventures they undertook and the greatly varied landscape subjects they painted.

Church largely ignored the Grand Tour of Europe that was commonplace among his peers and art patrons by the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1853, he made the first of two trips to South America. He returned there in 1857. In 1861, he sailed in the North Atlantic to see and study icebergs. In 1865, he traveled to the tropical island of Jamaica. In the fall of 1867, he embarked on a nearly two-year sojourn in the Holy Land, an experience that greatly expanded his vision and deepened his spirituality. Finally, even though he was severely crippled by arthritis, Church traveled in Mexico in 1889. He was so lame he had to be carried on a litter.

Frederic Edwin Church and his son, Frederic Joseph, in Beirut, 1868, attributed to Frederic Bonfils, American, 1860-1933, photograph   Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation  

Heart of the Andes resulted from Church's second visit to South America. In 1857 Church traveled to Ecuador to further his experience of the New World and of a landscape of ancient volcanic mountains and untouched nature. He studied the great volcano Chimborazo, a kind of elemental earth force that for Church stood for the very foundation of life. That landmark came to dominate his painted view. Heart of the Andes is not one scene, however. It is a sweeping, vast expanse—a panorama of South America as the Eden of the New World. Church painted each element in the five-by-eight-foot canvas with an almost scientific regard for accuracy and with an obvious devotion that suggests the depth of his spiritual connection to nature as the expression of a divine Creator.

Heart of the Andes, 1859, Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826-1900, oil on canvas, 66 1/8 x 119 1/4 in.   The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Margaret E. Dows, 1909 (09.95). Image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art  

Heart of the Andes was first put on public view on April 17, 1859, in the artist's New York studio. The painting was staged in a room full of palms and was dramatically illuminated by gas jets. The monumental canvas was mounted in a frame that suggested a window, complete with velvet drapes. The highly theatrical exhibition of this single painting was a popular entertainment akin to the modern day motion picture. Viewing the painting was likened to the experience of New World discovery itself. As the poet Thomas Buchanan Read described it:

 But never any sight of new-found land
 Shall equal this, where we entranced stand
 With dewy eyes and overflowing heart
 Gazing from the exalted hill of art!

The picture's public showing was the event of the season. Some twelve or thirteen thousand visitors saw the work. At an admission charge of twenty-five cents per visitor, the exhibition of Heart of the Andes netted the artist more than three thousand dollars in one month. Over the next decade, the painting was exhibited again and again, always making headlines. No other painter in America had so deeply engaged the public as Church did with Heart of the Andes. No other painter had done so much to elevate American art in the eyes of the world.

Stereograph of Church's Heart of the Andes on public exhibition at the Metropolitan Fair in New York, 1860, J. Gurney & Son   From the collection of Leonard A. Walle  

Maps of Hudson River Valley, Church's Home

Explore these maps of the Hudson River Valley near Catskill, New York, showing locations of the homes of Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.

Locus map of Hudson River Valley, created by Lucie Wellner   © Seattle Art Museum, 2007  

Detail map of Catskill and Hudson, created by Lucie Wellner   © Seattle Art Museum, 2007  

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