Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail

Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail

Language: English

Pages: 240

ISBN: 0300208375

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

Frederic Church (1826–1900), the most celebrated painter in the United States during the mid-19th century, created monumental landscapes of North and South America, the Arctic, and the Middle East. These paintings were unsurpassed in their attention to detail, yet the significance of this pictorial approach has remained largely unexplored. In this important reconsideration of Church’s works, Jennifer Raab offers the first sustained examination of the aesthetics of detail that fundamentally shaped 19th-century American landscape painting. Moving between historical context and close readings of famous canvases—including Niagara, The Heart of the Andes, and The Icebergs—Raab argues that Church’s art challenged an earlier model of painting based on symbolic unity, revealing a representation of nature with surprising connections to scientific discourses of the time. The book traces Church’s movement away from working in oil on canvas to shaping the physical landscape of Olana, his self-designed estate on the Hudson River, a move that allowed the artist to rethink scale and process while also engaging with pressing ecological questions. Beautifully illustrated with dramatic spreads and striking details of Church’s works, Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail offers a profoundly new understanding of this canonical artist.

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The stereoscope was an enormously popular optical device at mid-century. This viewing apparatus created the illusion of three-dimensionality using two nearly identical images printed side-by-side (the stereograph), placed behind a lens, and held close to the eyes. The foreground is thereby made almost tangible, but also seems divorced from the background; the background appears closer, and yet detached. There is no sense of a gradual recession or middle ground. The tree at the lower edge provides

comfort of the Arctic. The broadside proposes a different experience, one that is more preoccupied with looking closely. Church invites the viewer to examine the picture carefully, “to enter into the details” (returning to Didi-Huberman’s language), in order to “cut up” the painting into individual parts, and, finally, to make it whole again. Individual perception is emphasized, evidenced by the first two words of the text: “the spectator.” The first sentence sets up the desired mode of seeing:

him.” In the sections that follow, the artist traces scientific cause and visual effect throughout the painting, while also avoiding both technical rhetoric and narrativizing descriptions. The sentences are measured and precise. But at times the broadside becomes suddenly more evocative. In the fourth section, “Colors of the Iceberg,” the artist considers the impact of light and reflection on the colors (or lack of color) that an iceberg displays. In “a dull atmosphere,” an iceberg is, in

shipwreck in Friedrich’s painting—are made smaller but more problematic, quieter but more disturbing, in The Icebergs.58 FIGURE 54 Sir Edwin Landseer, Man Proposes, God Disposes, 1864. Oil on canvas, 36 × 96 in. (91.4 × 243.7 cm). Royal Holloway, University of London. FIGURE 55 Caspar David Friedrich, The Polar Sea, 1823–24. Oil on canvas, 38 1/16 × 50 in. (96.7 × 126.9 cm). Hamburger Kunsthalle. Following David Miller’s compelling interpretation of the iconography of wrecked boats, Church’s

enclosing it with the reassuring heft of architecture. Yet the arch is also a barrier, a visual impediment as well as a consolidating and harmonizing frame. In a sketch of the site from 1898, the sky above and the upper limit of the aqueduct can still be seen (fig. 81). The painting does not include them. The mountain landscape in the background of A View in Cuernavaca, so insubstantial and distant, suggests Church’s nostalgia for an earlier model of landscape painting, but this last work is

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