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One of key characteristics about American art in the 19th Century was they way it supported, and in many ways created, our view of ourselves and our place in the world. The work of the Hudson River School in particular celebrated America as a land of unsurpassed beauty and vastness, one enjoying a special relationship with The Creator. It helped us believe in the Exceptionalism that still permeates American consciousness today.

One of the most effective of these godfathers of our self-image was Frederic Edwin Church, a second-generation Hudson River School painter who was born on this day in 1826. Church’s work was immensely popular in the middle of the 19th century, the heyday of Manifest Destiny, when we were busying ourselves with consuming a continent, taking only a few years off for a bloody civil war.

Church’s paintings were often large and spectacular and he actively promoted his work by touring it around the country. He worked extensively in South American but somewhat ironically didn’t spend much time, if any, in the Western territories we were conquering when his work was popular.

Twilight in the Wilderness (Frederic Edwin Church, 1860)

His painting Twilight in the Wilderness, painted on the eve of the Civil War, is a scene that doesn’t exist except in the mind of the artist. It’s a composite of sketches that Church made in Maine and New York and it represents the idealized American landscape as Church understood it. Celebrating the enormity of Nature with the capital N was what his work was all about and it instilled in Americans a sense of pride in our beautiful country while encouraging us to go out and exploit it. Work like this helped create a sense of endlessness about our resources that some people still believe, in the face of much evidence to the contrary, today.

Aurora Borealis (Frederic Edwin Church, 1865)

Aurora Borealis is pure spectacle and illustrates a fairly common visual device used by Hudson River School artist. Placing a tiny ship in low in the frame beneath the towering expanse of sky shows us just how much space enjoy and how insignificant we appear within it. In retrospect, we weren’t as insignificant was we thought. In the 35 years following the completion of this painting we had deforested much of the Eastern United States and strung railroads and barbed wire all over the place. We turned out to be pretty effective landscape-changers and we keep getting better.

The work of Church and his cohorts might appear to our jaundiced 21st Century eyes to be a little sappy. This kind of romantic realism had fallen out of favor by the time Church died in 1900, although American Exceptionalism had not. Whether we choose to celebrate Church’s paintings or not, the contribution he and his cohorts made to our national identity is both deep and permanent.

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  1. […] landscapes lack the theatricality that we find in the 19th-Century American landscapes of Cole or Church, but the idea that simple landscapes were suitable subject matter for serious painting was a novel […]

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