V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




Through experience and careful seeing,
Church becomes a force of nature, allowing
his understanding
of natural contours and details
to guide his hand in representing organic subjects.

Frederic Edwin Church, one of the most important artists of the Hudson River School, is represented in the Brauer Museum of Art’s collection by a small, beautiful oil on canvas painting that Percy Sloan donated to Valparaiso University in 1953.  Sloan purchased the painting for his own collection from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1950 and shortly after donated it to VU, along with approximately four hundred other works of art, many by his father Junius R. Sloan (1827-1900) who himself was a Hudson River School painter and who was influenced and inspired by Church’s skilled example.  Today, the Brauer’s Church is one of the museum’s most beloved pieces, impressing viewers with its luminous treatment of its landscape subject.
    Although resembling other paintings in the artist’s body of work, Church’s Mountain Landscape is a studio creation, where the artist relied on his recollections of geographical details, primarily in southern Vermont where the artist traveled in the mid 1800s, to compose the scene.  Such studio creations were common among Hudson River School painters who, full of inspiration from the majestic American landscape and their experiences and observations there, were moved to record their sensations even when not in the direct presence of such grandeur.  Hudson River School works reflect the remarkable vastness of the nineteenth century American landscape, unfolding in such a picturesque manner that artists who sought to capture this spirit and scale thought that the landscape must be a divine gift, with the presence of God seen in, for example, the glowing skies and dynamic configurations of mountains, valleys, and bodies of water.
    This particular painting is difficult to photograph, since dark tones and shaded areas in the actual work scintillate with touches of applied color and passages of scumbled oil paint.  The glowing oranges in the sky and on the mountain face contrast with the darkness in the clouds, leading the viewer to feel that evening approaches as the sun lights the sky and land almost from within. The painting seems to exude a rosy light that reaches out to the viewer as he bends forward to examine the surface.  The orange and rose light does appear in photographic reproduction but does not seem to have the depth, the complexity that one sees in the actual piece. A small painting, lovingly created by an artist assured in his skill and wishing to capture on a small scale the sense of heavenly light that impressed him in the field, is a gesture of communication between the insightful Church and viewers young and old who can marvel at the treatment of light and visual textures.
    In this studio creation, the artist capably accomplishes a visual rhyme between the natural rhythms and patterns in active brushwork and the surface textures of the various natural elements.  The writhing of the tree in the lower right, upon close inspection, emerges from the free style of paint application.  Through experience and careful seeing, Church becomes a force of nature, allowing his understanding of natural contours and details to guide his hand in representing organic subjects.  The Hudson River Valley fills the artist’s heart and mind with inspiration, so that he can transcribe all those elements of fascination, filtered through the particular and unique characteristics of the medium he chooses to use.  The painting, then, becomes an object of devotion for the faithful figures constituting this school or movement in art.  To perceive and appreciate is only part of the equation; to celebrate through pictorial invention completes it so that viewers learn to see, for example, the dramatically lit sky and think that perhaps something greater than man inhabits and infuses this place, revealing Himself on occasion in ways for which words seem inadequate.
    Within this rich natural setting, a figure sits in a boat on a lake. He is dwarfed by the enormity of his surroundings.  Perhaps the imaginary boater is overwhelmed or afraid, set in such a vast space. Perhaps, though, he finds the appearance of the land and sky to be striking.  Perhaps the painting becomes a portal or device of teleportation, where the artist has enabled viewers, through their close viewing, to enter the picture and become the tiny boater. Floating in this environment where paint magically forms the textures of rocks, trees, and water, the viewer realizes the magnitude of the beauty that surrounds him, and that is available to him.  An appreciation of this piece seems linked to a feeling of thankfulness for the artist’s sensitivity and skill, for the American landscape, and for the Maker that speaks through Church and that drives his eye and hand.


© by Gregg Hertzlieb


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