On the Road

Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch

  • Scottish National Gallery  |  May 11 - September 8, 2013  |  National Gallery London  |  February 6 - April 28, 2013
Frederic Edwin Church, “Sunrise (The Rising Sun),” 1862, oil on canvas, 26.7 x 45.6 cm., OL.1981.12.A.B., Collection Olana State Historic Site, New York State OPRHP.

Olana, the home and artist-designed landscape of nineteenth-century Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), loaned thirteen works from its collection for the exhibition Through American Eyes: Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch, which was on view at the National Gallery, London, from February 6 through April 28, 2013. The selection from Olana included work never before exhibited. “Working with the National Gallery and the Terra Foundation has provided us with a wonderful opportunity to share Olana’s collection with an international audience,” remarked Sara Johns Griffen, President of The Olana Partnership.

Majestic scenes and striking coloration dramatize the works displayed in the exhibition which explored the remarkably fresh and spontaneous oil sketches made by Frederic Church throughout his career. Christopher Riopelle, Curator of Post- 1800 Paintings at the National Gallery and co-curator of the exhibition, further explained that “The National Gallery is a centre for the study of the European landscape oil sketch. Church is the leading American exponent of the sketch. The opportunity to show his works here introduces the New World into the equation and broadens our understanding of this vital and immediate art form.”

Featured in the exhibition were works which captured the spectacular views from Church’s own home overlooked the Hudson River in Upstate New York including Winter Twilight from Olana (about 1871-2) and Clouds over Olana (1872). These sketches, which are rarely on public view, reflected Church’s passion for his property and the encircling views. He explored the effects of light, using his own daily surroundings as muse. The eminent painter spent four decades designing Olana as an integrated environment embracing architecture, art, landscape, and conservation ideals.

Considered one of the most important artistic residences in the United States, Olana is a 250-acre artist-designed landscape with a Persian-inspired house at its summit, embracing unrivaled panoramic views of the vast Hudson Valley. Andrew Wilton, Former Keeper and Senior Research fellow at Tate Britain, writes in the accompanying exhibition catalogue: “From the house and its land he continued to sketch, producing records of the eternally changing Hudson scenery… Whatever the season, he produced them in large quantities, reflecting his love of the place and his untiring devotion to the recording of natural phenomena. As a group they are impressive—and indeed as moving—as any of his grander works.”

Church’s oil sketches revealed the freshness of his work and the spontaneity of his style as he captured scenes out of doors, some of which informed his compositions later in the studio. While Church is regarded as one of the most ambitious of the Hudson River School landscape painters, his works also document his voracious appetite for travel to locations as distant as Ecuador, Distant View of the Sangay Volcano, Ecuador (1857); Jordan, Ed Deir, Petra (1868); Jamaica, Ridges in the Blue Mountains, Jamaica (1865); Germany, Königssee, Bavaria (1868); and the waters off Labrador where he studied icebergs.

“From the cloud studies Church painted near Olana to the sketches of volcanoes, icebergs, and forests produced during the artist’s endless travels, the oil sketches in this exhibition function as both evidence of an artist’s careful process and as fully developed works of art,” said Katherine Bourguignon, of the Terra Foundation and co-curator of the exhibition.

This exhibition, the first to examine Church’s oil sketch achievement in depth on the other side of the Atlantic, was organized with and through major support from the Terra Foundation for American Art. Katherine Bourguignon asserted, “Frederic Church in London meets all the goals of the Terra Foundation – a great artist, international audiences, and true dialogue about American art.” The show united some thirty oil sketches and also included numerous loans from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution, New York. Bourguignon explained that “Frederic Church produced magnificent oil sketches throughout his lifetime yet these works remain little known outside the United States. This focused exhibition provides the opportunity to introduce audiences in London and Edinburgh to Church, and we anticipate a very positive response.”

Also included in the exhibition from Olana’s collection is Church’s Horseshoe Falls and Table Rock (December 1856–January 1857), a preparatory sketch for the completed painting Niagara Falls, from the American Side (1867), an impressive canvas on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland. Pairing the display of these two works illustrated the artistic journey from small sketch to large-scale oil painting. “The works from Olana represent both milestones in Church’s career and personal memories; many of the sketches were displayed in the house for his own enjoyment and for visitors and friends to admire. Today Olana is a place for visitors to experience his paintings, his collection, the house and landscape he designed and the views that inspired him,” commented Olana Curator Evelyn Trebilcock.