FREDERIC EDWIN CHURCH (American 1826 - 1900)
Chimborazo, June 15-19, 1857
Gouache on artist's board
11-3/4 x 20-3/4 in.
Property of a Gentleman
Frederic Church, who painted some of the most powerful landscapes of the nineteenth century, made this careful study of a glowing Mount Chimborazo in June of 1857, during his second painting trip to South America (May-August 1857). Together with his traveling companion, Louis Remy Mignot (1831-1870), a landscape painter from South Carolina, Church devoted all ten weeks he had on land exclusively to the country of Ecuador, with the specific intention of studying its string of majestic volcanoes crowning the Andes; north to south they are Cayambe, Pichincha, Antisana, Corazón, Cotopaxi, Iliniza, Quilotoa, Chimborazo, El Altar, and Sangay.
In her outstanding study, Tropical Renaissance. North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839-1879 (Washington and London, 1989), Katherine E. Manthorne used an even more apt word to describe Church's approach to the Ecuadorian peaks in 1857 which also suitably characterizes the present study of Chimborazo: it was one of artistic scrutiny. Church had been to South America before, in 1853, and had produced major paintings of the Ecuadorian landscape which had catapulted him to celebrity status, notably his The Andes of Ecuador of 1855. (That picture created a sensation when it hung amidst all the North American vistas and European scenes in the National Academy of Design's annual exhibition that year; it was the spectacular "odd man out," and the public and artists paid attention to the dramatic artistic possibilities afforded by the landscape of South America.) However, on his second trip, Church seemed far more certain of what he wanted to see and how he intended to paint it. His method of recording the mountains also changed significantly. Rather than sketching them from an angle or two, Church now studied them more extensively in oil sketches, and finished drawings in a variety of media, at different times of day and from virtually every conceivable vantage point. He tried to establish where and when they tended to be covered by clouds, how deeply their crevices fell into shadow, at what point along their ascent the vegetation ceased to grow, and so on.
Church's journal entries, like his on-the-spot studies surviving from 1857, are noticeably more quantitative and scientifically informed than the records he had made earlier-a change that signaled a deepening artistic intent. Manthorne sees evidence of this shift, for example, in the language Church used to describe the particular features of the South American terrain. During his first trip, Church sounded like an awestruck tourist when he used "lovely" and "beautiful" and "wonderful" to describe a visit to Tequendama Falls near Bogotá: "There is another cataract as wonderful as Niagara and if not as imposing yet more beautiful and picturesque and present a greater variety of imposing phenomena It is not my province to handle the pen, but if you will excuse the boldness I will grasp it no matter how awkwardly and attempt a simple description of a visit to one of the grandest and most lovely works of nature which I have been fortunate enough to witness" (quoted in Manthorne, p. 78). By contrast, on the 1857 trip which yielded the present work, Church wrote in the manner of a trained naturalist: "Our road today passed through a country curious for the mingling of rich verdure and volcanic soil. The ground in many places was cracked in regular pentagonal prisms As the stopping place was close by a river I walked along the bank to examine the bed of the stream. I found a large quantity of quartz and had the curiosity to examine pieces carefully and finally found one which had several minute flakes of gold. The principle sic sediments of the river was sic a course sic black sand."
The present work belongs to a group of studies of Chimborazo from 1857, most of which are now preserved in the collections at Olana, Church's grand home atop a bluff overlooking the Hudson River in Hudson, New York, and in New York City's Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution. All of the Chimborazo studies are somewhat different, and each shows the great mountain, the tallest in Ecuador as well as in the world depending upon how you calculate "tallest,"* as though it were a sitter for a portrait, in various guises and moods. Some are drawn from the city of Riobamba, and others from Guaranda. Most however, show the mountain as a white peak, covered with ice, unlike the present study which shows the peak reflecting the brilliant reddish hues of a spectacular sunset.
At this writing, the present "scrutiny" in gouache is the only known study of Chimborazo by Frederic Church in private hands. Indeed, studies by Church of any subject rarely appear on the art market since the resurgence of interest in his artistic contribution beginning in the 1970s. This gouache relates to the expansive 48 x 82-inch painting that summed up Church's 1857 experience of the tallest of all the Ecuadorian volcanoes, which he entitled simply Chimborazo, and completed some seven years later in his New York studio (Franklin Kelly, Frederic Edwin Church, exh. cat., Washington and London, 1989, color ill. fig. 31, p. 60). When it was acquired in the 1980s by the Huntington Library, Art Gallery, and Botanical Gardens of San Marino, California, Church's Chimborazo became the last of the artist's full-scale paintings to leave private hands. It had been commissioned from Church in 1862 by Samuel Hallett, the wealthy railroad financier who was one of the primary organizers of the Eastern Division of the Union Pacific Railroad Company. Highly regarded as a man of culture, Hallett also raised most of the capital for the Kansas Pacific, and he negotiated loans in England and in Spain to build the Atlantic & Great Western Railway.
Like many of Church's patrons, Hallett was a hard-driving entrepreneurial type who fully embraced the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny. Interestingly, the concept not only included expansionism from "sea to shining sea" but all of the Americas-the entire western hemisphere-as well. As Manthorne (p. 6) adroitly noted, "Central and South America were regarded, according to the Monroe Doctrine, as the geographical extension of the United States. Ecuador was a country within the sphere of influence delineated by Monroe but far removed from the arena of actual political action. The locale therefore occupied an ambiguous status in the national imagination: It was appropriated as part of 'our tropical regions' but otherwise was of little immediate consequence. Steeped in the landscape aesthetics of John Ruskin and the scientific explorations of Humboldt, Church was sensitive to Ecuador's unique geological and artistic potential and brought it to the attention of his stay-at-home public. Painting its scenery amounted to taking artistic possession of it; South American became his territory, just as the American West belonged for a time to Bierstadt .Viewing his canvases, audiences confirmed their assumptions that the Andes he so minutely rendered were a continuation of the Rocky Mountains, and the Magdalena or the Amazon but extensions of the mighty Mississippi."
Interestingly, in the finished painting of Chimborazo, Church chose to depict the ice-capped peak much more faintly than he did in any of his careful studies. Indeed, in the Huntington picture the mighty Chimborazo appears as a ghostly specter in the sky, far above the landscape and the clouds. In this way, the painting is not at such far remove from the shimmering temple of dreams that appears in the sky of a well-known work by Church's teacher and artistic mentor, Thomas Cole, entitled Youth (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Youth formed part of Cole's four-panel series entitled Voyage of Life, a moralizing saga of the four ages of man.
Interestingly, like Cole, Church conceived his large painting, Chimborazo, as part of a multi-part scheme of South American panoramic canvases, "nothing less than an epic of the Tropics in color." He designed it as the left panel of a triptych which consisted of his magnificent 1859 In the Heart of the Andes (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in the center, and Cotopaxi of 1862 (The Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, Michigan) on the right.
Although Church clearly made the present study of Chimborazo as a potential portrait of the mountain to be translated into the final painting, in the end it became valuable not for the volcano itself, but for the range that appears beneath it, swathed in the late afternoon glow of the reflected sunset. This unpublished study represents an important addition to Church's known studies from his second South American experience.
*The summit of Chimborazo constitutes the point on the Earth's surface which is furthest from the center. This is due both to its high elevation and its location at the equator (a key factor since the Earth is oblate).