A show at the Detroit Institute of Arts puts the spotlight on Frederic Church’s paintings of the Mediterranean world.
Frederic Edwin Church is usually thought of as a painter of breathtaking, Romantic views of pristine nature, but there was another side to the Hudson River School master. In the middle and later parts of his career, he devoted himself to depicting the man-made relics of the ancient world, at various locations in the Mediterranean and the Middle East. Church’s fascination with ancient architecture and its pictorial possibilities is the subject of a current exhibition at the Detroit Institute of Arts, “Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage,” on view through January 15. Not only does the show afford visitors a Church’s-eye view of such icons of antiquity as Petra, the Parthenon, and Jerusalem, it also shows the painter in a relatively informal mode, working sometimes in oil, chalk, and graphite on paper rather than in oil on massive canvases.
The effects Church could get with this technique are really quite astonishing. His study Parthenon at Night, Athens shows the temple of Athena bathed in purple light, which gives the effect of a “son et lumière” show of the type that today’s tourists are treated to. What the source of the violet glow could have been in 1868, before the invention of the electric light, is anyone’s guess; perhaps the color came at least partly from Church’s imagination. Certainly the oil and graphite sketch has a hallucinatory quality. Another work in the exhibition, The Parthenon (1871) is done in a much more finished style, in oil on canvas. Here we see the same structure by the saner light of day, when dreams vanish under the harsh glare of the Mediterranean sun. Church deftly captures the contrast between the direct light on the Parthenon itself and the open shade that occupies the foreground of the composition.
In Jerusalem From the Mount of Olives (1870), another highly finished oil on canvas, Church balances architecture with landscape. The entire walled city, topped by the gold-leafed Dome of the Rock, fits into a stripe of the composition right below the horizon. Above is the vast sky, with a dark squall line approaching from the left, while below it is the scrubby hillside dotted with olive trees. A group of three travelers, accompanied by two camels, stands in the foreground, looking toward the city that they will, presumably, soon enter. Wielding a fine brush, Church manages to convey the vastness and density of Jerusalem while still pointing out that it is contained within, and ultimately dwarfed by, the countryside. As a Romantic artist, perhaps Church felt that holy as Jerusalem was, the true home of divinity was nature.
Church’s journey from the Hudson Valley to the Middle East began with his reading of the great German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose book Cosmos (1845) contained a call for artists to depict the landscape of equatorial South America. In 1853, when he was 27, Church went to Colombia with the backing of the New York businessman Cyrus Field. Four years later, again Field-financed, he went to Ecuador in search of the sublime. These two trips yielded some of Church’s most impressive and crowd-pleasing works.
The travel bug had bitten him, and a couple of years later we find Church on a boat in the North Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland, painting icebergs. But the Old World travels that produced the paintings shown in the Detroit exhibition stemmed from family tragedy. In 1865 he and his wife lost both their children to diphtheria. After two years, seeking spiritual comfort, they embarked on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, in the course of which they explored Rome, Greece, and Syria, as well. Possibly the religious impulse was what turned Church toward the built environment, so rich in sacred sites. Or perhaps it was simply that for the first time in his career, he was painting in a region where the human interest and historical interest loomed even larger than the landscape. The mid- and late 19th century was a time of intense interest among Europeans and Americans in the cultures of the Middle East and their pictorial possibilities, and Church was not immune. One of the works in the Detroit show, Standing Bedouin (1868) qualifies as a bona fide Orientalist picture. The landscape almost fades away as the painter’s eye is captivated by the exotic costume of the Arab figure—keffiyeh above, wildly colorful textiles in the middle, and pointed red shoes beneath.
The sight that inspired Church the most during his artistic pilgrimage was not a Christian shrine but a pagan building complex carved out of cliffs in what is now Jordan—Petra, the “rose-red city half as old as time,” as it was famously described in a poem by the English clergyman John William Burgon. Petra, which was built by the Nabataeans starting in around 1080 B.C. and added to over many centuries, was first revealed to Europeans by the Swiss explorer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt in 1812 and was painted by various artists, including the Scotsman David Roberts, in the ensuing decades. Church’s oil on paper mounted on canvas The Urn Tomb, Silk Tomb, and Corinthian Tomb, Petra (1868) is deeply bathed in rose-red, not only the sandstone but the sky and the land from which it rises. El Khasneh (1868), which shows the Classical-style Roman-era entrance to the treasury of Petra, is a spontaneous-looking oil sketch. The oil on canvas that Church eventually made of the subject was the only large-scale painting that he hung in his self-designed, Oriental-fantasy house in upstate New York, Olana.
By John Dorfman