Friday, September 5, 2008

The Power of God Writ in the Book of Nature; Frederick Edwin Church

Niagara Falls, 1857

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860s

Frederick Edwin Church was arguably the first, and one of the greatest, artists of Manifest Destiny, the idea that God had destined the American wilderness for the American people.
Church was no non-conformist boho artist type. He was quite "mainstream" in his beliefs and fully shared in the growing conviction of the years just before and during the Civil War that it was the destiny of the United States to settle, civilize, and make fruitful the land God gave to the Union of the States.
Church was that peculiarly American combination of literal minded factual recorder and religious visionary. One of his great heroes was the German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt whose famous expeditions and exhaustive cataloguing of natural phenomena lead him to the reassuring conclusion that they revealed the hand of the Creator. The worst loss for thoughtful Victorians was not that Darwin and Wallace contradicted the creation stories in the Bible, but that they undid Humboldt's work, which had provided great consolation in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Like Humboldt, Church takes a microscope to the facts and finds God.
The painting of Niagara Falls above was one of Church's first great public successes, and remains arguably the finest painting of the Falls. The Falls had been known since the 17th century and had already been a common subject for artists for a century. Church's painting is a little misleading. There is a total absence of people and settlement in the painting. In fact, the area around the Falls had already been densely settled for some time, and was already a famous tourist destination. Otherwise, no one painted the Falls with such close attention than Church. Perhaps no other artist captured every bit of foam and wave without resort to impression; quite an accomplishment considering this is a vast amount of moving water.
For a pious public steeped in the Bible, the rainbow rising out of the foam would be an immediate clue that Church was out to do much more than record the facts. Church's painting of the Falls was intended to call to mind the Great Flood of Noah described in the Bible. A demonstration of natural power reminds us of God's power.

Twilight in the Wilderness was painted sometime in the midst of the Civil War. Like the painting of Niagara Falls, it is a very factual painting that points to something much more than the facts. It is one of the most dramatic sunsets painted since Turner, and the most elaborate that Church ever painted. The vermillion in the clouds certainly is an accurate record of actual sunsets, but it is made to suggest something much more. The painting has a certain dread and melancholy about it, especially around the edges. The art that came out of the Civil War is always oblique in its references to the suffering of the war, but no less powerful for being indirect. In the center, the warm glowing light of the setting sun beckons us westward beyond the blood red clouds and the empty melancholy wilderness.

In case we still don't get it, here's a very unsubtle sunset by Church. Colored lithograph copies of this picture were distributed to Union troops during the war.

Our Banner in the Sky, 1860s


Jeremy D said...

Excellent post. Love the Hudson River School, Church included along with the voluminous forms of Bierstadt and Thomas Moran(who to me, is like an American version of Turner)

David G. said...

The painting Twilight in the Wilderness looks like a photo, it's so precise. It's hard to tell it's a painting.

I tend to like art like that. It's like a window into life.