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Art and Spectacle in Nineteenth Century New York

In the spring of 1857, artist Frederic Church (1826-1900) traveled throughout Ecuador, making sketches of the country's mountainous landscapes. Two years later, working in his studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York, he painted a large canvas titled The Heart of the Andes, a spectacular and detailed landscape that opened a window into another world. White-capped mountains under a partly cloudy sky set off the closer rugged peaks of the mountain range. In the middle, a golden-lit green peaceful valley serves as home to a small mountain village, Christianized with a humble church on the lake. A waterfall tumbles toward the viewer, a miracle of playful nature. In the foreground to the left, a well-beaten path takes us to the sight of two reverent souls, clad in the traditional custom of the region, visiting a gravesite marked with a white cross. On the right, delicate blue flowers and large-leafed plants frame the bottom of the picture. Native birds of South America perch in trees. On the left, on a tree trunk lit by a speck of sunlight, just to the left of a branch on which sits a colorful plumed bird, the artist has carved his name. The Heart of the Andes invites a long look and a sense of wonder, for both the beauty of the region and for the skill of the artist in painting such bounty, especially in his meticulous rendering of abundant trees.

In New York, this painterly revelation of a new world was first shown privately in Lyric Hall at 765 Broadway, and then in late April the painting was moved back to Tenth Street. There, it went on view to the public for an admission price of 25 cents. Frederic Church hired an agent to help maximize the impact of its exhibition and its subsequent press, and this early foray into in-person and offline social media marketing, bypassing distributors, certainly made its mark. Church’s people hung curtains to dim extraneous light, and they framed the painting to simulate the affect of a window frame. Gas jets cast the painting in dramatic light, accentuating its features, most certainly the waterfall. The Heart of the Andes, an armchair vacation in oil paint, took New York by storm, with over twelve thousand people lining up to see it. Many brought opera glasses in order to view the exquisite details. The phenomenal painting then toured London and eight American cities. People wrote home about it.


While Frederic Church was unveiling his view of the Andes to New Yorkers, artist Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) was off sketching in the Rocky Mountains. The young German-born artist accompanied Colonel Frederick W. Lander on a government-sponsored expedition to chart a new route to California, one that would venture north of Salt Lake in order to bypass Mormon-controlled territory. While Lander pushed on to California, Bierstadt set up camp for several weeks in the area around Wind River Mountains (in present-day Wyoming), making sketches and photographs of the sublime landscape and the Native Americans who lived there. In early 1863, back in New York at the Tenth Street Studio Building, he painted The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, a painting of massive romantic ambition that dramatized the American West. The work is considered a response to Church’s, but like the Andes picture, it’s a compilation of various preparatory sketches and imaginary sources. His Rockies look more like the Alps, for example. As with Church's canvas, its subsequent theatrical exhibition drew thousands of visitors and was sold for $25,000, an astonishing amount in those days.

Emblematic of the Hudson River School, Church's view of the Andes and Bierstadt's interpretation of the Rocky Mountains extol the search for spirituality in nature, the values of rugged nationalism and the aspirations of American empire. Exhibited at the 1864 Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, a fundraiser for wounded Union soldiers, the paintings inspired a vision of American destiny. Furthermore, the popularity of the fair itself, with near 160 paintings on exhibit, touched upon the need for a permanent city museum. In his 1867 history of American art, writer and critic Henry T. Tuckerman (1813-1871) argues for what he calls “a permanent and free Gallery of Art,” citing the growing popularity of art exhibitions, the talents of the American landscape painters, and the lack of exhibition space outside of their ateliers. The National Academy of Design met some of the need for space, but it had a different mission.

Thus, the sensation of the exhibitions of Church and Bierstadt's paintings set in motion the founding of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1870. Frederic Church served as one of the founding trustees. Considering the breadth and depth of the Met's collection, the dreams of empire seem fulfilled.

The two paintings are currently on view in the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a focused installation, American Landscapes: Selections from the American Wing, on the main floor of the Robert Lehman Wing. The first painting encountered in this exhibition is one by the father of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole. (At the time of my visit the Cole work on display was his View on the Catskill—Early Autumn, 1837, and not View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow (1836) as I had expected.*) Entering the gallery, Church's The Heart of the Andes (1859) appears on the left, and Bierstadt's is over on the right. Also on view are works by Jasper Francis Cropsey, George Inness, William Bradford, and William Lamb Picknell. The style of Picknell's Banks of the Loing, ca. 1894-97, shows more fashionable European influences on American painting at the end of the nineteenth century, telegraphing a waning interest in the Hudson River School.

These works belong to the Met’s American paintings collection and are on view in the Lehman Wing through 2010/11 while the current American galleries are undergoing renovation. The period room galleries of American art and design are already open in the New American Wing. To see the gallery with these paintings, walk past and behind the grand staircase, through the medieval rooms, and then into the circular Lehman wing at the rear of the museum. Spend some serious time with Church and Bierstadt. And don't forget your opera glasses.

* Ah ha! The old on-loan switcheroo! Cole's Oxbow turns up at PAFA through September 30, 2009.

• See Book of the Artists: American artist life, comprising biographical and critical sketches of American artists: Preceded by a historical account of the rise and progress of art in America by Henry T. Tuckerman (G.P. Putnam & Son, 661 Broadway, 1867) on Google books.

The paintings:

The Heart of the Andes, 1859 by Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900). Oil on canvas. 66 1/8 x 119 1/4 in. (168 x 302.9 cm) Bequest of Margaret E. Dows, 1909 (09.95) (top and right)

The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, 1863 by Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830–1902)
Oil on canvas. 73 1/2 x 120 3/4 in. (186.7 x 306.7 cm). Rogers Fund, 1907 (07.123) (viewed through the curtains in the image top right)

This post is part of a series about the Hudson River School and New York City. Read more about the Tenth Street Studio Building and a walk through the West Village here.

Top image: The Heart of the Andes, 1859 by Frederic Edwin Church. Other images by Walking Off the Big Apple from Saturday, August 29, 2009 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.





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