Art review: Frederic Church, Edinburgh

Obersee, Germany, July 1868 by Frederic Church. Picture: Contributed
Obersee, Germany, July 1868 by Frederic Church. Picture: Contributed
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WE aren’t too familiar with early American painting, and the tradition of touring huge canvases has died out, but this collection brings both together, showing how the emerging nation was learning to describe and define itself

Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch

National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh

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THE idea of the blockbuster is not as modern as one might think, nor is it exclusive to the cinema and the pulp novel. In the 19th century there were paintings that were blockbusters in everything but name: big pictures with sensational subjects aimed at the widest possible public. They were toured from city to city and even abroad.

For artists to approach the public directly this way, they had to become showmen, choose their subjects for their popular appeal and paint on a big scale. They were also competing directly with other popular entertainments. When Sir David Wilkie’s friend, Benjamin Robert Haydon, hired a hall to show one of his historical paintings, he complained bitterly that people were flocking to see the American dwarf General Tom Thumb next door and ignoring his picture.

One artist who regularly toured his paintings was John Martin, who even took his apocalyptic visions to New York in 1856. Unsurprisingly, America was fertile ground for this painted showmanship and the American landscape painter Frederic Church was one of the most successful of these artist entrepreneurs. In 1859, for instance he toured a big, dramatic painting of the Andes, not only in America, but also to London where it was a sensation.

The National Gallery of Scotland has in its collection one of Church’s most striking essays of this kind, Niagara Falls from the American Side. Commissioned in 1866 for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1867, it wasn’t finished in time. Another painting of Niagara by Church was sent instead. The commissioned picture was however exhibited in London in 1868 to great acclaim. Nineteen years later it crossed the Atlantic again to enter the our national collection, the gift of John S Kennedy, a native of Blantyre who had made a vast fortune in the US. Apparently Kennedy gave no prior notice of his gift. He simply dispatched the painting and then sent the trustees a wire announcing it was on its way.

With the exception of the Abstract Expressionists, American painting is not familiar in this country. In consequence Church’s picture has seemed a bit of a fish out of water here. Not having any context, we haven’t known what to make of it and indeed for a long time it was ignored. According to Michael Clarke, director of the gallery, it was only when a painting by Church turned up in a Manchester School and fetched a great deal of money that the Gallery realised how important John S Kennedy’s unsolicited gift really was. The picture is now recognised as one of the few major American paintings of its time in a European collection. It also provides the occasion for Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Sketch, a show which at last helps to give it some context.

However elaborate Church’s major finished works may be, his initial approach was always direct, sketching on the spot, apparently working with great rapidity, but always in oil, not watercolour. He left hundreds of sketches. The exhibition is a choice of just 28, reflecting his work in his native America as well as his travels overseas.

Church was a member of the Hudson River School inspired by British landscape painting, but also by the idea popularised by Walter Scott that the national landscape is integrally bound up with the national identity. Because of their animation and concentrated energy, waterfalls had a special significance in this too, and so when Charles Stuart and Jacob More painted Scotland’s waterfalls, it was as a physical embodiment of the country’s poetry and history. Niagara as Church painted it a century later – the biggest waterfall of all – could therefore be presented as a symbol of all that America stood for.

Ruskin had also added to this view of landscape the idea that it is itself a kind of moral resource. The Hudson River painters were working at a time when the wild American landscape could still just be seen as a virgin Arcadia. Inspired by such ideas, therefore, painters could present it as embodying not only the nation, but also its claim, because of its Revolutionary origins, to be a uniquely moral state. Thus Church’s Niagara paintings present America’s natural grandeur as a reflection of its claim to a special dispensation of Providence.

There is no Scottish equivalent, however, for the message in a lovely painting by Church, simply called Sunrise. With a quiet river in the foreground, the sun is just peeping over distant hills. Apparently inspired by the birth of the painter’s son, this is nevertheless a vision of America as a country still fresh and new, a kind of Eden. Church and the other Hudson River painters were among the first people to project the American dream of a new world in an unspoiled land. It seems apposite, however, given the problematic nature of that dream, that they did so just as the railroad was rolling out west decisively to spoil it for ever.

Church’s early sketches are minutely naturalistic and show affinity with English artists on the fringes of Pre-Raphaelitism, such as the Liverpool painters William Davis and George Price Boyce, but his naturalism may equally reflect his interest in photography. Indeed a sketch of Niagara here is actually painted over a photograph. Other sketches of the falls, however, show he was also determined to show that painting was superior to photography. Exposure times were then far too slow to capture falling water in a photograph as anything other than a smooth white sheet. In contrast, one of Church’s sketches records very accurately the dynamic patterns in a massive body of falling water. The effect is captured by the rapidity of his brush and the broken surface of the paint, something he could never translate into one of his big machines.

Church was so deeply engaged with the landscape of the Hudson River that he eventually built himself a house on a hilltop near the town of Hudson looking over the Catskills. Its style was Persian, a souvenir of a visit he made to the Middle East recorded here in a picture of Petra. In his later life he sketched the view from his house almost daily and some of the most striking pictures here are just such rapid, daily sketches of clouds and hills. He also painted a scarlet sunset seen over the view of the roofs of nearby Hudson. Its colour matches a very different image painted during the Civil War, the Stars and Stripes as a vision in the sky. Church also travelled both south to Central and South America and north to Labrador in Canada. In Ecuador it was typical of him that he journeyed for five days by donkey and on foot to sketch the Sangay Volcano. In Labrador he braved cold and seasickness to sketch icebergs. The vast canvas that resulted was exhibited in London in 1861.

When Church’s Heart of the Andes was shown in London, if some people may have seen its painter as Turner’s heir, Ruskin was less flattering: “He can draw clouds as few men can, though he does not know what painting means, and I suppose never will.”

Church’s Niagara is a vertical composition. Three-quarters is spray or falling water. Rocks in the foreground are also half hidden by spray, but a shaft of sunlight creates a small rainbow. A cliff to the left supports a rickety viewing platform. Beyond it the falls tumble through more than half the height of the picture and curve away across its width. There can be no doubt about the picture’s impact, but perhaps Ruskin had a point. As a painting it is just a little creaky. It maybe does what photography couldn’t do, but it does it in the way that perhaps it would have done if it could.

Best in Show

Frederic Church painted Sunrise (The Rising Sun) in the autumn of 1862. It shows the moment of dawn as the sun peeps over distant hills to illuminate a tranquil, green landscape with a quiet river winding through it. Although this is an exhibition of sketches, this picture seems to be more than just a sketch and more like a finished picture. His son was born in October that year and so it has been suggested that the sunrise represents the dawn of a new life, but this fresh landscape in the light of dawn was also how America saw itself.

• Until 8 September.