New York

Frederic Church

Cooper Union Museum

The exhibition of Frederic Church (1826–1900) is hard for me to judge, because I’m afraid I went to it with exaggerated expectations—not from Cole, but from the Cooper Union Museum. Certainly the show does not represent a fraction of the range and depth of the Museum’s collection of Church, and that isn’t because it is small: Church is not a complex artist, and his work can be adequately represented by only a few examples, if they are chosen with intelligence and care. What was shown were all oil or pencil sketches, however, and at least that is interesting. Church was the only pupil Cole ever had, and one can see from this fact alone how wholeheartedly he embraced Cole’s esthetic—he is not likely to have sought out so reclusive and difficult a teacher if he did not. But for a person with his attitudes, Church came at an awkward time. The literary approach to landscape was going the way of the very notion of the history painting it had been intended to perpetuate; anecdotal interest was becoming (or had become) buckeye genre. How, then, to paint landscapes of which the principal quality was to be grandeur? Church never really did discover a technique: sometimes his handling is dry and precise, sometimes very free; his color can be sombre, or it can be shrill; he likes to simulate the textures of natural objects with a fidelity that is perhaps more accurate than true, if I may put it that way, but at the same time he is also drawn away from sensation toward ideas. But if Church lacked a consistent technique he discovered at a very early stage in his work an advantageous bias toward his subject: he saw that if he was to find a suitable vehicle for his dream of grandeur he had to get away from what was about him here, and so he became a painter of exotica. It might be the tropics or the Arctic, Greek ruins that were loaded with history or a natural freak in America that for him had no human past at all but bore the clear imprint of God’s hand—in any case it was remote and marvelous and strange, and within that all-embracing register of experience the distinctions of thought and sensation, precise technique and loose, become insignificant. At the same time, the images by which Church hoped to express his sensibility were so deliberately sought-after, so strongly willed, that sensibility was extinguished. This is why a show of Church’s sketches is not very interesting, even at best: the format is appropriate mainly to the exercise of a faculty that Church did not want, indeed could not allow himself, to develop.

Jerrold Lanes