Art for Spring: ‘Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch’ at the National Gallery London

The exhibition ‘Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch’ opens this week at the National Gallery, London. To mark the event, we have a selection of spreads from the exhibition catalogue, available to view via our Facebook page.

Frederic Edwin Church (May 4, 1826 – April 7, 1900) was an American landscape painter born in Hartford, Connecticut, he was also a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters.

‘The nineteenth century was the great age of the plein-air oil sketch and the American artist Frederic Edwin Church was among the most prolific and accomplished exponents of the medium. He practised it throughout his life, and of ‘all employments’, he told teacher Thomas Cole, ‘I think it the most delightful’. His output proves his enthusiasm: over the course of his career he produced hundreds of studies encompassing a vast range of natural subjects, from the icebergs of the northern seas to the volcanoes of Ecuador, from Niagara to the Middle East. From Olana, the home he built for himself overlooking the Hudson River and the distant range of the Catskill Mountains, he made a very large number, which form a kind of meteorological diary of his life in that spectacular spot, chosen for the sake of its views and for its associations with some of the most important periods of life.

Church is more usually remembered as the painter of some of the most powerful representations of landscape ever conceived. Henry Theodore Tuckerman, an early critic and historian of the American school, called him ‘the painter of scientific eloquence’. That phrase well describes Church’s rare feat of combining searching detail with almost overwhelming grandeur. He created a canon of dramatic works that he intended would take the public by storm, and devised theatrical methods of presenting them to achieve the greatest visual impact. But that impact, he knew, must be founded on a vivid acquaintance with nuances of light, the movement of water and the structure of clouds. 

Draughtsmanship was always the foundation of his feats of observation. ‘Church’, said Thomas Cole, ‘has the finest eye for drawing in the world’. From the start he was, as Gerald Carr has put it, ‘a compulsive draftsman’, and over his lifetime he was to create a huge archive of his observations of nature. ‘His sheer virtuosity outdoors with the brush and with the pencil – the rapidity and accuracy with which he sketched – dazzled his contemporaries’. After his death his brother Louis Palmer Church gave to New York’s Cooper Union (now the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum) over 2,000 works, including many drawings and oil studies of all periods. Olana houses the other major collection, comprising nearly 500 drawings and over 150 oil studies, as well as finished paintings. 

From the Introduction to Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch available now from Yale University Press

See the full Gallery | The National Gallery Exhibition | Buy Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch 

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