WINSTON-SALEM – Frederic Edwin Church was already one of the most successful artists in America when he embarked on a two-year journey to holy sites in the Middle East, Rome and Athens to seek solace from personal loss.
A collection of work inspired by that trip, “Frederic Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage,” is on display at Reynolda House Museum of American Art now through May 13.
The exhibition is the first to explore these particular pictures - more than 50 paintings, oil studies and drawings from the late 1860s through the early 1880s.
Church made detailed sketches during his travels of the people, monuments and landscapes and wove them into imaginative paintings that manage to be both grounded in the real world and fantastical at the same time.
“He’ll look at people, how they are dressed as they are traveling, and integrate that into his paintings later in his studio,” said Allison Slaby, curator at Reynolda House. “He takes all the visual materials and combines the elements to create imagined landscapes - absolutely stunning landscapes.”
Church was born into a wealthy family in Hartford, Conn., in 1826. He moved to Catskill, New York, in 1844 where he studied with Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School of painters.
Among the most spectacular of Church’s early landscapes was “Niagara,” 1857, which made an impression on both sides of the Atlantic.
Travel and imagination were always important elements in Church’s work.
In 1853, he made his first of two expeditions to South America. When the painting, “The Heart of the Andes,” 1859, was exhibited in New York, it attracted thousands of viewers, and his reputation was confirmed.
Reynolda House owns a variation of that painting - “Andes of Ecuador,” painted in 1855. It usually hangs in the reception hall of the historic house but has been moved to the Babcock Gallery to be displayed alongside work in the traveling exhibition.
The contrast between “Andes of Ecuador” and the other paintings in the exhibition, which were made later, shows how Church’s work changed over time.
His late work shifted from the natural world to human history. While “The Andes of Ecuador” represents the natural features of a South American landscape, including waterfalls, ravines, plateaus and mountain peaks, the paintings in “Frederic Church: A Painter’s Pilgrimage” focus on ancient cities and buildings.
In 1860, he and wife, Isabel Carnes, settled on a hillside farm overlooking the Hudson River in New York State. More travels followed including an expedition to the North Atlantic between Labrador and Greenland, which resulted in “Icebergs: The North,” 1861, and to Jamaica.
Church experienced painful personal losses during the American Civil War. In 1867, he and Isabel, their young son and mother-in-law went on a two-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
“Pre-civil war, he was interested in the natural world,” Slaby said. “He lost friends and children to diphtheria, and after the war, he visited holy sites to try and work out the losses of history and human life.
“He was a very religious man. Jerusalem, in particular, was important to him. He and his wife spent a night on the Mount of Olives.” Several key events in the life of Jesus are said to have occurred there.
“He was one of the first painters to paint the Parthenon in Athens,” Slaby said.
“All of the work in the exhibition was created after Church observed firsthand some of antiquity’s most extraordinary cities, buildings, temples and ruins,” said Allison Perkins, director of Reynolda House. “The exhibition juxtaposes pencil drawings and oil studies that Church completed during his trip with paintings he completed back in his studio.”
Highlights of “A Painter’s Pilgrimage” include three of the largest and most important paintings inspired by the trip. The one that Church did the most to publicize was “Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives,” 1870. When it was exhibited the following year, spectators flocked to see the painting, using opera glasses to examine the details.
For his first canvas of a major building, Church chose the most archetypal structure of Western civilization: The Parthenon. During his 15 days in Athens, he created 30 sketches and studies in pencil and oil (nine of which are in the exhibition). The success of the painting led Church to idealize the Roman ruins at Baalbek in “Syria by the Sea,” 1873, which combines a Corinthian column and spectacular ruins with a powerful shining sun.
After his journey to the East, Church built his Persian-inspired home, Olana, in 1870-72, and remained there raising four children, becoming parks commissioner for New York City, and a founding trustee of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. He died in 1900 in New York City. In 1966, his home became a New York State Historic Site.
“I think the way that he poured the influences of the designs that he saw on his trip into the building of Olana shows how deeply it had affected him,” Slaby said. “After what he experienced in the Middle East, the way it put it into the design of his home, and the way he and his wife resumed life and had more children showed that he had regained a sense of peace.”