Monday, August 13, 2018

Exhibit Review of 'Frederic Church: Painter's Pilgrimage'

In 1867 Frederic Church and his family headed east across the Atlantic to Europe and the Near East, looking for new inspiration. After painting volcanoes in South America, jungles in Jamaica, and icebergs in the North Atlantic, he turned his epic vision to the old world.

Evening on the Sea, oil on canvas
He brought his oil paints and sketchbooks with him to capture the color and drama of what he would encounter. 

The grand cities of Europe such as Rome and Venice had been painted by many artists before him. He was looking for vistas that hadn't been thoroughly documented. That led him to Athens, Jerusalem, Syria, and Petra.

View of Baalbek, 1868, oil and pencil on board
The exhibition "Frederic Church: A Painter's Pilgrimage" explores this late chapter in Church's career, and it is currently on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. 

It includes over 70 objects, including pencil sketches, oil studies, large studio canvases, architectural studies, costumes, sculptures, and bric-a-brac, all of which evoke the exotic romance of the life of the artist-explorer.  

Travel to that part of the world was not easy. A steamship line had just been opened up to Athens from Rome, and the road from the port of Jaffa to Jerusalem had just been built to accommodate wheeled vehicles. To get to the rock-cut city of Petra, Church hired local guides and traveled by camel. Church wrote that he nearly fell off when the animal rose to its feet and pitched forward. 
Standing Bedouin (probably February 1868)
Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
Church's guides helped guard him against zealots who were suspicious of artists making graven images of the sacred sites. An artist in a previous expedition had been killed. Church stopped to make a quick sketch of the Roman-style architecture "but our guide was much exercised thereby and made significant motions that it was unsafe I might be fired at." (Quoted from book "The Painted Sketch")

The Urn Tomb, Silk Tomb, and Corinthian Tomb, Petra, 1868, oil on paper mounted to canvas
Church only spent a few days in Petra, but he worked from sunup to sundown. His studies of the architecture are marvels of close observation, precise detail and efficient brushwork.

Parade Entering the City, Jaffa, 13 x 20 1/16 in. (33 x 51cm)
Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum
He painted his studies in oil over a careful pencil outline on the paperboard surface. Most of them are relatively small, painted for his own reference, and were not intended for exhibition.

Erin Monroe, Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum, said the response to the exhibition has been fantastic. She included some sculptures, costumes, and ephemera from the Atheneum's collection to the exhibit to bring the 19th century ambiance to life. 
If you haven't been to the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, they also have a strong collection of Hudson River School painters in their permanent collection.

The show Frederic Church: A Painter's Pilgrimage was organized by the Detroit Institute of the Arts, and this is the last stop in the tour, ending August 26th. The softcover catalog is 228 pages long and has large color reproductions and an informative text. The book The Painted Sketch is the best one to get if you're interested in 19th century oil sketch practice.
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