Looking Up: Skyscapes of the Civil War

Looking Up: Skyscapes of the Civil War

Frederic Edwin Church, Meteor of 1860, is in the collection of Judith Filenbaum Hernstadt

Photos of the asteroid and a meteor which hit in Russia this past week reminded me of Frederick Edwin Church’s painting of a meteor, now on view in the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition, The Civil War and American Art.  This month we celebrate President’s Day, Black History Month, and Spielberg’s film of Lincoln in the Oscars, while the exhibition presents the historical and sociological aspects of the civil war as interpreted by artists of that time.   Many paintings and photographs on display tell those stories, but there’s also a sub-theme of landscape as metaphor.  The scenery of two Hudson River School artists, Church and Sanford Robinson Gifford, present geological and astronomical wonders with deeper meanings.
Church’s Meteor of 1860 connects to Walt Whitman’s poem in Leaves of Grass, Year of the Meteors (1859-60).  While Whitman’s poem spoke of John Brown’s rebellion and the election of Abraham Lincoln, it also described “the comet that came unannounced out of the north flaring in heaven,” and “the strange huge meteor-procession dazzling and clear shooting over our heads.  (A moment, a moment long it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over our heads, Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;)  

Church painted two large meteors followed by a trail of smaller sparks whose trail runs parallel to the earth.  Like Whitman’s description, his vision also appeared at night; it lit up sky in pink and cast a glowing reflection on the water.  He wrote about the event he had seen from his home in the Hudson River Valley, Catskill, New York on July 20, 1860.  Could he have seen this rare event as an omen?

Frederic Edwin Church, Natural Bridge, Virginia, 1852 collection of the Fralin Art Museum, University of Virginia

The earliest painting by Church in the Smithsonian exhibition is The Natural Bridge, Virginia, a geological formation in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, which George Washington had surveyed and Thomas Jefferson had owned at one time.  His painting pulls our eyes upward to the  meticulously painted detail of the rock against white clouds and a brilliant blue sky.  Another story is told towards the bottom of the painting, where a black man explains this geographic wonder to a seated white woman, putting him in the authoritative position.

Frederic Edwin Church, Icebergs, 1861, from the Dallas Museum of Art

In 1859, Church had traveled by boat from New York to Labrador in search of icebergs.  He exhibited one result,  Icebergs, in New York on April 24, 1861, two weeks after war had broken out at Fort Sumter.  Church responded to the national strife, renaming the painting The North—Church’s Picture of Icebergs, thus signaling his political stance. Church allocated all exhibition fees to a fund established to support the Union Soldiers’ Fund.  The large, impregnable iceberg is said to represent the North itself.  Church also may have wished to commemorate the Battle of Fort Sumter and signal his sympathies in another well-known painting owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Our Banner in the Sky.

Frederic Edwin Church, Cotopaxi, 1862, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Founders Society Purchase, Robert H. Tannahill Foundation Fund, Gibbs-Williams Fund, Dexter M. Ferry Jr. Fund, Merrill Fund, Beatrice W. Rogers Fund, and Richard A. Manoogian Fund. The Bridgeman Art Library

Church traveled worldwide in his exploration of nature, natural wonders and exotic landscapes.  In 1862, he painted the Cotopaxi volcano in Ecuador.  Volcanoes are frequently seen as harbingers of war and upheaval.   Frederick Douglas had said in 1861, “Slavery is felt to be a moral volcano, a burning lake, a hell on earth.”  Cotopaxi, along with Icebergs, is one of the four large paintings which may be seen as allegories of the causes and events of the Civil War.

Church, Aurora Borealis, 1865, in the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Church painted the northern lights in 1865 based on sketches provided by explorer Israel Hayes’ sketches from a voyage to Labrador.  Aurora Borealis is an expansive view of nature in blue, green yellow, orange and red.  The halo of lights makes the sky look grand, while a boat shrinks next to its magnificence.    Generally the northern lights were interpreted as omens of disaster, but fortunately the war ended during the year in which it was painted.

Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara Falls, 1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

There are other important paintings by Church in Washington, DC, including the National Gallery’s El Rio de Luz.  The Corcoran Gallery of Art owns Niagara Falls, 1857, above.  During the 19th century, lithographs of this painting circulated the country at a time when travel was not easy and photography was not widespread.  It’s worth going to the Corcoran to see the painting.  A gorgeous rainbow rises through the mist and spray, but is only visible by surprise when one stands in front of the real painting, not computer reproduction.  Frederic Church can be thanked for painting and interpreting the art of nature and for reminding us of mother nature’s greatness.

Why the Hudson River School Still Amazes

Why the Hudson River School Still Amazes

Thomas Cole, Sunset on the Arno, 1837, is at the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley until January 23. The exhibition, organized by the Westmoreland Museum of American Art, is from a private collection. Whispy clouds hover above, almost like angels.

Forty paintings from the Hudson River School of painting glow in the Shenandoah Valley, in the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, Winchester, VA. Certainly this location has some resemblance to the Hudson River Valley and these paintings would naturally resonate in the community. Just as the 19th century artists centered mainly in New York and New England hoped to capture and hold onto the natural beauty of their unspoiled nature, the Shenandoah Valley still offers a resting place from too much human development. Entitled “Different Views of Hudson River Painting,” the paintings will be in Winchester until January 23.

Jasper Francis Cropsey, The Narrows of Lake George, in the Hudson River Museum. A smaller, view of Lake
George with similar colors is on view is in the in the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley

In this two-room exhibition, many pristine paintings are arranged amongst poetry and quotations by Walt Whitman, William Cullen Bryant and others. The four seasons, many sunsets and other wonders of nature are on view. These paintings capture views we occasionally see in the mountains or countryside in those moments of nature’s most beautiful light and color. I was particularly drawn to Jasper Francis Cropsey’s radiant, reflecting color in Lake George, reminding me of the beautiful autumn that has just passed. Much if its appeal is that this painting and several others allow us to remember something and then hold onto it.

John William Casilear, Quiet River (Genesee), 1874. Often there are usually more cattle than people in the Hudson River paintings.

The majority of paintings are small and intimate; brushstrokes are minute and very detailed. People and animals, if depicted, are extremely small to show the grandeur of the natural world. The air is clean, often hazy, and the water is totally placid. We are invited into contemplation.

There are majestic views of Niagara Falls and Mount Washington, but also simple scenes of unknown places such as John William Casilear’s Quiet River (Genesee),1874. There is nothing intellectual about the exhibition, only the opportunity for reverie in peaceful, pastoral places. Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson School and painter of the Journey of Life series in Washington’s National Gallery, often painted his landscapes as allegories, but there doesn’t seem to be an underlying message in this Italian scene, Sunset on the Arno–unless the clouds are seen as angels.

Laura Woodward, Adirondeck Woodland with Deer, has an infinite variety of greens, from very light to dark. The two deer are barely shown against the daylight around the bend of a stream and under the tall trees on the right.

The entire exhibition helps us understand why the Hudson River School is still admired. Alexis Rockman, a contemporary New York painter featured in this blog’s next entry was influenced by the Hudson River School.This distinctive American style of painting was important from the 1830s to 1880s. Impressionism in France had a much bigger influence on modernism and is usually more popular, but these artists–and there are so many of them– deserve a long look and a lot of our respect.

At home I have a small painting on a plate, done in the Hudson River style by my great-grandmother, as gift to my great-grandfather It is signed on the reverse, “From Helen to James, painted between Xmas and New Year’s 1889.

Washington museums also have several paintings of the Tonalists who came after the Hudson River School and were generally more painterly. These artists used more layers and show greater influence from the techniques of French painters, particularly from the Barbizon School. The Tonalist painters of moonlight scenes, offer a nice comparison with the sunsets of Hudson River painters—less color but perhaps even more evocative of moods. These paintings include several by Ralph Albert Blakelock at the National Gallery, Phillips, Corcoran and Smithsonian American Art Museum, as well as paintings by George Inness.
Here is a blog devoted to the Hudson River School: http://circa1855.blogspot.com/