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Archive for November 7th, 2020

Fredric Edwin Church

This picture was inspired by Church’s second trip to South America in the spring of 1857. Church sketched prolifically throughout his nine weeks travel in Ecuador, and many extant watercolors and drawings contain elements found in this work. The picture was publicly unveiled in New York at Lyrique Hall, 756 Broadway, on April 27, 1859. Subsequently moved to the gallery of the Tenth Street Studio Building, it was lit by gas jets concealed behind silver reflectors in a darkened chamber. The work caused a sensation, and twelve to thirteen thousand people paid twenty-five cents apiece to file by it each month. The picture was also shown in London, where it was greatly admired as well.

That’s the Met’s paragraph about this painting. The painting measures 66 in x 120 in and can be seen at the Met on Fifth Avenue.

“…any extant watercolors and drawings contain elements found in this work.”  In other words, this is what’s called “a composite painting,” meaning it does not represent any view actually seen by the painter. Rather, the painter assembled landscape-snippets from his sketch book into a grand vista of enormous depth.

In (1) we see flowers so close that we can see the veins of leaves.  The people in (2) are so far away that they are the size of leaves in (1).  In (3) we can make out some houses.  The mountain ridges from (4) through (6) become progressively paler to our view because they are farther and farther in the distance.  The snow-capped peaks in (7) occupy only a small area of the painting surface, but by the time our attention has progressed from (1) through (6) we know (7) is very, very far away and huge.

It’s a mind boggling trip. Even after you’ve imagined the painter going through his sketch book to select the bits that would be collaged together like this, you will stand in front of this painting with dropped jaw and –well, totally–fall for it.  Your mind will toggle between “haha, this is contrived” and “wow, I inhabit this vast mountainous space.”  That’s us, with our skepticism and modern irony.

There’s a glib explanation of what modern painting is:  pre-moderns believed that a painting was a window through which they saw a scene; us moderns know better, we are fully aware that the painting is a flat surface with paint on it, period.

I don’t think it’s that simple.  To see this painting, in 1859, New Englanders traveled to New York in their corsets and starched underwear. Something must have been pinching them all the time, including their shoes, as they stood in front of this dramatically lit huge painting and they knew perfectly well where they were.  They were aware that they were not looking through a window frame at a mountain in Ecuador

The past several posts here have been about this duality of “it’s a window, it’s a flat surface.” The duality is nothing new. Perceptive, thinking people have always been puzzled by illusions, I would imagine, going back to Egyptians painting faces on sarcophagi.  Western philosophers, starting with Plato, have tried to sort out the distinction between reality and illusion.  Psychology and neurology have been nailing it down, but in our subjective experience the puzzle is alive and well.  That’s why we make images.

Click on painting for enlargement.

Fredric Erwin Church, 1826-1900

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