Maine Sublime: Frederic Edwin Church’s Landscapes of Mount Desert and Mount Katahdin, Evelyn & Maurice Sharp Gallery, Olana. Presented by the Olana Partnership and the New York State Office of Parks & Recreation, Hudson, NY, through Oct. 23. Scheduled for the Cleveland Museum of Art, Summer of 2014.
Each time I look at Fog at Mount Desert, Frederic Edwin Church’s rocky seacoast, with its plashing foam, I give a start. The 1850 oil painting with its red-tinged shoals, and foaming surf (on loan from the National Gallery of Art) looks so much like a Winslow Homer, so much like Homer’s home territory of Prouts Neck. I doubt I’m the only one who feels this at Maine Sublime at Olana, a show whose intimacy pleases perhaps more than its sublimity.
Church was ten years’ Homer’s senior. In 1850, Homer, whose link to Maine would become indelible, was a young illustrator in New York likely studying the rising star of American landscape’s every accomplishment.
Remember, American Sublime? Church was still a star, perhaps the star, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts retrospective of 19th century American landscape that traveled here from the Tate in London. The biggest name, the most works (27) in the splendid show that included among so many others, his teacher Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran, John F. Kensett, Fitz Henry Lane, Albert Bierstadt – and still, we associate the Hudson River School master with grand vistas of the Middle East, of South America, of Niagara. And, of course, Olana, his Persian-inspired hilltop home and studio on 250 acres, now a historic site. Easy to forget (did we know?) Frederic Church loved and painted Maine.
Fitting, that when curator John Wilmerding proposed Maine Sublime to the Olana Partnership, it was decided to launch the exhibit in Homer territory at the Portland Museum of Art. If you missed it, Maine Sublime has “come home” to Olana’s upstairs Evelyn and Maurice Sharp Gallery (adjacent to the bedrooms now also on view) where it can be seen through October 23. It’s a small exhibit, 10 oils and seven pencil sketches and this winnowing is one of its delights. Depth, breadth and finesse mark the selections, which come predominately from Olana’s private collection, with four major loans. Wilmerding (a major Americanist, and the Christopher Barofim Sarofim Professor of American Art, emeritus, at Princeton University) underscores Church’s affinity for seaward Mount Desert and inland Mount Katahdin, as the exhibit reveals Church’s lesser-known, private side.
Church’s visits to Maine began as a bachelor in the 1850s. When he married in 1860, he took his bride Isabel; his visits to the Pine Tree State stretched half a century. In 1878, Church purchased a home near Lake Katahdin, the only one he ever owned besides Olana. He enjoyed Maine like the rest of us: hiking, swimming, camping, fishing, singing. “The piano is a standing resource,” Charles Tracy wrote in his diary the summer of 1855. “Mr. Church’s capacity for entertainment is perfectly inexhaustible.” Other companions were less formal, often punning on his surname. His friend Theodore Winthrop nicknamed him “Iglesias,” (Spanish for church).
Many of the artist’s trips were working sojourns with colleagues (e.g. Bierstadt, Kensett, Lane), others sizable friend-and-family gatherings. One senses from the details in Wilmerding’s fine catalog essay, all were restorative and productive.
In Campfire Near Mount Katahdin (oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1877), we see the wooden Lean-To’s (spelling?) the artist slept under after long nights of tall tales; a blazing fire is seductive.
Wood Interior near Mount Katahdin (oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1877) captures the woods near the inland home that Church would purchase; like a number of these works, it was not shown to the public before this exhibit. The artist’s view from the family retreat, whose placid water and tranquil skies look nurturing, is caught in Mount Katahdin from Upper Togue Lake (oil on academy board, 1877-1878).
Unlike his teacher Thomas Cole, Church did not seek allegory in his nature sketches though a spiritual impulse comes through in the meticulous realism. The eye is keen, botanical; often Church penned notes to himself on the drawing paper. Specificities of temperature, time, season; of rock and barnacle… information that would be crucial to completing the studies and beginning new works in his studio at Olana.
Birch tree Struck by Lightning (pencil on coarse brown paper, 1850) is one beauty. White Chinese gouache has been applied to the trunk that has split, the shading like a sorrow. The husband’s self-deprecating wit is revealed in Frederic and Isabel Church on Mount Desert Island (1860, graphite on thin white wove paper): Church has sketched his new bride on a cliff above him facing into the wind, he stands behind, reversing direction to avoid it.
The pleasure of looking at art in suitable quarters: You are able to really see. See the “small miracles of impeccable technique,” as Wilmerding describes the watery swirls and foam in Fog on Mount Desert (1850, on loan from the National Gallery). These things can’t be simulated digitally or on a poster.
All the sunset and twilight titles in Church’s oeuvre must exhaust a cataloger. Radiant, irradiating horizons are plentiful in Maine Sublime. The luminosity that suffuses Church’s art (made possible by the availability of cadmium pigments in the late 1840s) is a necessary pleasure. Take your pick: The theatrical Twilight, A Sketch from 1858. Sunset, Bar Harbor, (oil on paper mounted on canvas, 1854), which was displayed at PAFA’s American Sublime. Here it is doubly fascinating: it is shown with a pencil sketch of the same subject done the same month and year. This Sunset, Bar Harbor (1854, graphite on tan paper) is extensively annotated in Church’s elegant script for cloud formations and different strata of light. There are other sunsets, twilights, each one transfixes.
Notice how the sensual, often tumultuous arrangements of cadmium hues calm through the years. From the warrior orange-reds lighting dramatic skylines, more lavender, softer yellows enter the later works. Lake and sky reflect and appear to merge in Mount Katahdin from Upper Togue Lake from 1877-78, a meditation in oil on paper.
Serenity defines Camp Millinocket on Mount Katahdin (1895, oil on canvas, on loan from the Portland Museum of Art, Maine). It is Church’s last major work of Maine. It was a birthday gift for his wife, Isabel, to which he attached this note:
Your old guide is paddling his canoe in the shadow, but he knows that the glories of the heavens and earth are seen more appreciatively when the observer rests in the shade.
Maine Sublime can be seen as part of a Guided House Tour at Olana during its regular open hours but is available for separate viewing only on Saturdays. Reservations recommended. (518) 828-0135. The splendid exhibit travels to the Cleveland Museum of Art next summer (2014). www.olana.org