Sunday, June 28, 2009

Church and the Mirror

I had supper last night with the great-granddaughter of Frederic Church at her home less than a mile from Olana. She said she found one of Church’s journals from his Near East expedition as she was exploring the attic a year or two ago.

“The reason I liked him,” she said, “is he seemed to have no fear.”

During his 1868 expedition to the lost city of Petra, she told me that Church was in mortal danger from the local Bedouin tribes, who had killed an artist in the region not long before. It was considered blasphemy to make graven images. But Church “hired a bunch of people to guide him. He payed them a great deal of money so they didn’t want to kill him.”

At one point the locals blocked his way and threatened his life. Church then asked to borrow a mirror, because “he realized a mirror was a sacred thing.” He took the mirror, and, while the Bedouins weren’t looking, he painted a crack on it. He then showed the cracked mirror to the angry men.

Then, announcing he would restore the mirror to its original condition, “he went behind the tent and erased the crack.” The men believed him to have divine powers, and they alllowed him to pass safely.


Nik said...

Thats an amazing story, the man was a quick thinker.
I'd love to be able to take a look at one of his journals.

Gregory Becker said...

did you get a look at that journal?

i, me said...

I would love to see that journal! Was it just notes or sketches too?
I have visited Oleana -its great that his relatives still live around there... beautiful country.
I also like that conservation groups are working to preserve the view from there, since I believe, he painted several of them.

i, me said...

If anyone is ever up that way, Olana's worth a visit - he built it in an 'oriental fantasy' style' and the interior is remarkably well preserved w/original furniture and such

i, me said...

Oh, just one other thought. I have never heard that about mirrors, but often on women's dress and emprodiered cloth from Palestine to Rajasthan, there are little shiny, mirror like squares sewn into the fabric. I always just thought it was an inexpensive way to echo the effect of precious metal.

Unknown said...

What a great story. He was there even before Indy!

James Gurney said...

I wish I could have seen the journal in person, but it was given to Olana. They have quite a bit of documentary material from Church's life. They've just opened a special little museum on the grounds for displaying his work, and as I,me says, it's worth a pilgrimage. Bring your paints: the view is one of the best in the Hudson Valley.

Roberto said...

Mr. Gurney-
I have been following your excellent blog for a while and I would like to thank you for all the hard work you (and yours) have put into it. This is by far the best place to hang out at on this collective-electronic-HiveMind. Not only are your posts consistently exceptional but your Fellow (Jouney) Travelers make great contributions as well. Here’s mine…

Frederic Church (1826 –1900) is obviously an amazing painter. While doing some research for a mural painting commission I also discovered these two Artboyz from across the Pond. David Roberts (1796-1864), and Frederick Catherwood (1799-1854). Both artists traveled and painted the Levant (the 'Holy Lands') and MesoAmerica (similar to Church; I imagine Church could have seen their work since they would have preceded him by about a generation, I don’t know.) Roberts was more popular for his paintings of the Levant, while Catherwood is better known for his paintings of ancient Mayan cities and temple sites. These two guys would have been contemporaries of Daguerre (1787 –1851) and, I believe, they also worked as theatrical set painters as well. -RQ

(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia):
David Roberts was a Scottish painter. He is especially known for a prolific series of detailed prints of Egypt and the Near East produced during the 1840s from sketches made during long tours of the region (1838-1840). This work, and his large oil paintings of similar subjects, made him a prominent Orientalist painter. He was elected as a Royal Academician in 1841.
Frederick Catherwood was an English artist and architect of Northern Irish ancestry, best remembered for his meticulously detailed drawings of the ruins of the Maya civilization. He explored Mesoamerica in the mid 19th century with writer John Lloyd Stephens. Their books, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán and Incidents of Travel in Yucatán, were best sellers and introduced to the Western world the civilization of the ancient Maya.

James Gurney said...

Roberto, thank you! You've added a lot to the discussion, and I'll try to include Catherwood and Roberts in a future post.

i, me said...

holman hunt also did holy land paintings, and he was among the first to try to accurately portray events in the new testment w/historically accurate clothing, rather than, say 15th century italian dress.

Of course, the whole 'orientalist' paintings were also in vogue some remarkable work there - there is a great book about Orientlist Painting:Orientalists: Western Artists in Arabia, the Sahara, Persia and (Hardcover)
by Kristian Davies

one of the few 'coffee table' art books I have actually found worth reading (rather than just looking at)

Unknown said...

thats badass haha. thats all i have to say about that

Stephen James. said...

Hon nobbing with members of the Church family. I resent you siiirrrr!!!

Mostly out of envy.


Very cool dude.

James Gurney said...

I'll second I,me's recommendation for the Kristian Davies book "The Orientalists." Davies traveled to most of the locations of the paintings and he knows a lot about the cultures of the subjects that the artists portrayed.

Jan Blencowe said...

This bit of Church-lore was fascinating. I was painting at Olana for the first time just a few weeks ago! The house tour was fascinating and Olana itself is quite a grand thing!

I second the suggestion to make the pilgrimage to Olana plus the Thomas Cole Nat'l Historic site is just across the river also worth the trip.

I would love to be an artist/traveler/explorer but I think sketching in the natural history museum is as close as I will ever come!

Gordon Napier said...

Those 19th century Bedouin tribesmen took the Islamic ban on graven inages rather far if they thought that even the depiction of ruined buildings was forbidden. Traditionally only depiction of humans and animals was frowned upon, hence the ancient mosaics of trees, plants and heavenly palaces decorating the Ummayad Mosque in Damascus. Islamic art is not entirely without a figurative tradition, moreover, even illustrations of Muhammad have been produced historically.
On a related note, there was a good exhibition of British Orientalist paintings at the Tate Gallery in 2008, called 'The Lure of the East'. Ironically it seems these Western-produced images of the East have become much sought after among rich Arabs. (One such collector was charged, not long ago, with cutting illustrated pages out of rare books from the British Library).

James Gurney said...

Thanks, Gordon, for those fascinating insights.