In 1864, Frederic Edwin Church presented one of the great showstoppers of American painting – Heart of the Andes – to an admiring public. He built the picture into an elaborate picture window. Draperies opened on each side; portraits of American presidents adorned the top of the structure. Thousands of New Yorkers paid a quarter each to enter the exhibition, where they gazed at the spectacular view with the hushed and solemn awe of those granted a glimpse of Eden. Some even used opera glasses, to enhance the illusion that they were examining the details of a living world. This stagy, prop-filled presentation suggests why Church is an emblematic American painter. Is he an artist of transcendent – or is it just hammy – feeling? Are his exaggerations miracles of ecstatic truth or showbiz spectacles? Is he Ralph Waldo Emerson or Cecil B. DeMille?
Church is all of the above, a master of the ambiguous ground between hokum and the exalted – which is essential American ground. Although In Search of the Promised Land: Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church, the retrospective of his art that recently opened at the Berry-Hill Galleries, does not include some of the artist’s grandest conceptions – such as Heart of the Andes, The Icebergs, or Niagara – it does have one of his best and most dramatic pictures, Cotopaxi, and other significant works. Organized by Gerald L. Carr, the exhibit contains more than 50 paintings, including some less grandiose ones that offer unexpected insights into his art. In his earlier work, for example, Church was generally a well-behaved member of the Hudson River School, painting landscapes (such as the wonderful View in Pittsford, Vt.) that present a fairly modest view of the relationship between nature and the new American Adam.
But even in the early work, Church kept his eye on the far horizon. As a young painter of great gifts, he naturally sought a space that was not already occupied by his Hudson River School predecessors. He also knew that many before him – writers as well as artists – had treated the New World as an Eden. What, then, was he to do? He chose to stretch the boundaries of the spirit landscape, going beyond the pale. Even too much was not enough. If other artists found paradise in the American West, the restless Church was driven to press still farther outward; like Melville, he seemed to find the right scale for America by making voyages. In South America, Church found his most bountiful inspiration. The tropics offered his hungry eye not only vast vistas and smoldering volcanoes but also the teeming intensity of tropical vegetation. There is no Yankee reserve in his eye for detail: The jungle is dense, tumid, and bejeweled with parrots.
Church also sought the majestic in Europe. He did not find it in palaces or cathedrals, however, but in the ruins of great civilizations; by depicting ruins, he could evoke the eternal expanse of time itself, much as he hoped to convey the endless physical space of a tropical Eden. Never bashful when it came to picking his subjects, Church chose the biggest bang for his buck – the Parthenon. In his version, the marble seems almost alive; the columns blush with reddish pinks, as if they were remembering the glorious past. Wherever he was, Church relied upon heightened contrasts to create a feeling of sublime importance. To suggest the immensities of nature, he would juxtapose itty-bitty details with endless valleys and mountains that soar above the clouds. And it is never noon in a Church painting but almost always dusk or dawn, when the light carves apart space and the world is glassy and still with expectation. Even his nights are luminous. In The Meteor of 1860, a meteor has supplanted the stars and beams its pinkish reflections upon the forest. The trees seem to reach upward as it passes.
Cotopaxi, which Church painted in 1862, is the show’s conversation piece. Church presents a volcano spewing smoke into the sky. The sun, hanging heavily just above the horizon, smolders in the dense atmosphere. The water in a lake seems to be heating up in the lurid light, though the splash of the vast waterfall below the lake still appears cool enough. There is a darkened area in the right-hand corner, enlivened by bright flying birds made tiny by the immensities of space under a cliff. The atmosphere in the upper left-hand corner is still free of smoke: It has a strangely blank innocence. Of course, many interpretations of this vision are possible. It was painted, for example, during the Civil War. But it would be a mistake to be too literal about such meanings: Who cares about the moral when the world is ending or beginning? You’d think that such fire and brimstone would have assured Church’s continued success, but American taste is nothing if not fickle. Like Melville, Church was forgotten soon after his death.
Church is an exhausting painter, always reaching beyond the frame as if art were not quite enough. His perfect foil is Fairfield Porter (1907-75), a painter and critic of our own era. Porter is not an artist who reaches for the stars; he lets art frame his life. The small retrospective of his work at AXA Gallery, which continues for another couple of weeks, is aptly called A Life in Art. In addition to works of art, it includes examples of the artist’s personal correspondence and writings. Porter’s world is filled with books, friends, poetry, family, and houses in the country. The way a fading red can awaken a highly keyed green provides more than enough excitement for one day. His presiding inspirations are Vuillard and Bonnard, masters of the domestic interior, to which he adds a dash of Abstract Expressionist brio. The intimacy and sweetness of his work continue to hold our interest, however, because nothing nostalgic or sentimental weakens his sensibility. There was something appealingly gruff, edgy, distant, and no-nonsense about Porter. Like the New York poets of the fifties – his friends – he loved to give an unexpected twist to a picture or a phrase. Watercolor “is roughly to oil what harpsichord is to the piano,” he said, “except that I like the harpsichord better than watercolor, and oil better than the piano.” Porter worked at a smaller scale than Church, but he, too, had an idea of paradise: barefoot friends and summer afternoons.