Frederic Edwin Church 1826-1900
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In 1850, Frederic Edwin Church was uniquely positioned to bear the mantle of American landscape painting. Church was the star student of Thomas Cole, the preceding generation’s leading light. He had earned Cole’s blessing through abundant talents and diligent study. Church would ultimately surpass Cole in the clarity and atmospheric realism of his technique, and he was also his own painter in theme, leaving aside the heavy allegory of Cole’s The Course of Empire (New-York Historical Society, New York) in favor of a naturalist’s passion for observation. When Cole died in 1848, Church was seen as Cole’s successor, but the younger painter came triply armed, using the critical theories of John Ruskin while having a model in the form of the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt launched a passion for scientific exploration that stretched from a young Charles Darwin (whose legacy would eventually eclipse entirely the former’s) to a generation of American painters and explorers. Indeed, while Cole’s outdoorsmanship was confined largely to the Hudson River Valley, Humboldt modeled the “artist-adventurer” that would immediately impact Martin Johnson Heade and Church, in whose footsteps Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran would shortly follow. The third major influence came in the 1843 publication of Modern Painters by John Ruskin. Ruskin admonished a generation of English and American painters to bring “truth to nature.” The trio of critic, artist, and naturalist primed Church’s formidable native talents for the very highest achievements in American art in the nineteenth century.