Monday Morning Art School: the power of light

In a world obsessed with rawness, you could do worse than studying the Luminists.

Lumber Schooners at Evening on Penobscot Bay, 1863, Fitz Henry Lane, courtesy National Gallery of Art. The setting for this painting is, quite literally, out my back door.

Luminism is a distinctly American painting movement of the middle of the 19th century. It was chiefly concerned with the effects of light on the landscape. Significant painters of the movement included Fitz Henry LaneMartin Johnson HeadeSanford Gifford, and John F. Kensett. The latter two you might recognize as Hudson River School painters. In fact Luminism was closely related to the Hudson River School and painters like Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt sailed very close to the wind of Luminism.

A fascination with light is something Luminism shares with Impressionism, but the path there is exactly opposite. Impressionism is what art historians call painterly—there are visible brushstrokes in the top layer. Luminism is what is called linear—modeling and distance are created with skilled drawing and brushstrokes are suppressed.

View of the Shrewsbury River, New Jersey, 1859, John Frederick Kensett, courtesy Rutgers University

In the Luminist world, light is generally hard. The soft, ambiguous atmospherics of Claude Monetor James Abbott McNeill Whistler were inconceivable to these painters. Attention is paid to detail, which is often picked out by some larger-than-life weather event. Atmospheric perspective is exaggerated for effect.

For this reason, scenes of mountain vistas and the ocean were especially popular. They allow us to see light playing itself out in all its variations. Fitz Henry Lane was a popular painter of the Maine and Massachusetts coasts, and his work is a compendium of Luminism’s themes. There’s extensive detail, an expanse of interesting sky, and careful attention to value.

There’s often an elevated viewpoint, where we are looking down on the scene in a very personal way. It’s a viewpoint that’s not quite possible in reality. It seats us right next to God, in effect.

The Artist Sketching at Mount Desert, Maine, 1864-1865, Sanford Robinson Gifford, courtesy National Gallery of Art. 

Luminism has no meaning divorced from its themes, which were intimately related to those of the Hudson River School painters: discovery, exploration and settlement. In their telling, America is a peaceful Eden where nature and human beings coexist peacefully. The schooner rests quietly at anchor; tilled fields nestle undisturbed below the mountains; There are no blizzards, tornadoes, or wolves to disturb the balance. There is only that sublime light from the heavens.

Hudson River School artists believed that the American landscape was a reflection of God. Luminism, in particular, is connected with Transcendentalism, which saw a close link between the spiritual and physical worlds.

This has to be set against the times in which these paintings were created. It was a period of fast settlement and rapid industrialization, particularly in the east coast where these painters sold their work. Luminism was painting an America that—if it existed at all—was short-lived and vanishing.

Cotopaxi, 1862, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts. Church showed Americans the whole New World through a Luminist lens.

At the same time, there was an intense curiosity about parts of the country that most people had never seen. That’s why tens of thousands of people were willing to pay 25¢ each to see Church’s Niagaraon exhibit. The massive, glowing canvas was a proxy trip to the Niagara Frontier. And Church could, with a flick of his brush, conveniently excise all the people who lived and worked in Niagara at the time.

The tags Hudson River School and Luminist came long after both movements had ended. They were initially dismissive. Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Abstraction had taken the western art world by storm. Careful brushwork and drawing were filed in the back of our consciousness. The cognoscenti considered them quaint. But they’ve always had their fans in Middle America.

Much can be learned from these painters in regards to light. And it hurts nobody to know how to use the brush carefully and discreetly at times, to feather, brush and model with delicacy and intention. In a world obsessed with rawness, you could do worse than studying the Luminists.

Towering genius disdains the beaten path

Today, art and science run in very separate tracks. That wasn’t always true.

Cotopaxi, 1862, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Detroit Institute of Arts 

Because of lockdown, museums and galleries are closed. That means I won’t seeing Alexander von Humboldt and the United States: Art, Nature, and Culture at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Luckily, I can tour the show virtually or buy the book.

Not only was Alexander von Humboldt the towering genius of early 19th century science, he had a profound influence on American art and culture. There’s a Humboldt Street in Portland, a Humboldt Parkway in my home town of Buffalo, and various fixtures named Humboldt across our country.  He was a famous explorer, but he was also the fellow whose work inspired Frederic Church’s The Heart of the Andes.

Self-portrait, 1815, Alexander von Humboldt. Gentlemen-scientists once knew how to draw.

Humboldt was the last of that breed of brilliant scientific generalists, largely self-taught, who contributed so much to the world’s knowledge of botany and geography. Between 1799 and 1804, he traveled throughout South America, exploring and describing it in scientific terms.

Humboldt is the first person to have realized that the coasts of South America and Africa dovetail, and he proposed the idea that they might have once been joined. He noted that volcanoes fall in linear chains and demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that rocks were formed from the world’s oceans. He laid the foundations of modern geography and meteorology. In his spare time, he surveyed Cuba and stopped to visit President Thomas Jefferson at the White House.

Geography of Plants in the Tropics, 1805, Alexander von Humboldt and A.G. Bonpland.

Humboldt saw the physical world as a unified system and the physical sciences as interlinked. He understood that botany was dependent on biology, meteorology, and geology. To prove that took 21 years and resulted in his opus magnum, Cosmos. It changed the way scientists see the world.

Humboldt mentored many young scientists. He was equally generous with visual artists. He expected them to play a part in the collection of natural data, by accurately portraying the landscape. Humboldt recognized landscape painting—then in its infancy—as among the highest expressions of love of nature.

Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland at the foot of the Chimborazo, 1810, Friedrich Georg Weitsch

Church was not the only artist to follow in Humboldt’s footsteps, but he was by far the cleverest. In 1853 and 1859, he traveled to South America to replicate Humboldt’s journeys. While Humboldt had used family money to finance his explorations, Church enlisted an American financier, Cyrus West Field, who wanted to encourage investment in his South American ventures.

The Heart of the Andes is a composite of South American topography and botany. Its monumental scale and detail can’t be appreciated through photographs; you really need to go to New York and stand in front of it.

The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

But in 1859, Americans weren’t flocking to the Metropolitan Museum of Art; it didn’t yet exist. Our nation didn’t even have a decent rail system. Church took his painting on tour, visiting seven American cities and London. At its opening in New York (April 29 to May 23, 1859) 12,000 people paid a quarter apiece to see it.

At the end of its tour, Church sold the painting for $10,000—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist. Church had hoped to ship the painting to Berlin to show it to his mentor, but Humboldt, alas, died before that was possible.

Capturing the rainbow

I don’t think we can count on them sending the helicopters any time soon.

By the Rio Blanco in the rain, by Carol L. Douglas, 9X12, available.
My friend Barb made it back to Maine from Thailand and slept for 19 hours straight. Then she woke up and tried to figure out how to wash her travel-tainted laundry without access to a laundromat. Not that she’s going back to work any time soon; she works in a pre-school.
It’s good to know that somewhere in the world there are flights moving. Why they’re moving in Asia, the epicenter of this disease, and not in South America, is beyond me. But our carefully-laid plans of the weekend are now thrown into confusion. We have ascertained that we can take the cars to Rio Gallegos but we have no idea if we have a flight when we get there.
Jane Chapin is having vivid dreams, all reflecting her anxieties. She dreamt she was trying to keep a box of baby hedgehogs alive, and that she was naked at the mall. During the day, she’s her usual level, funny self, of course. In the dark hours, the fruitless effort and endless conversations are starting to wear.
We have no idea whether flights in Argentina will resume on the 28th or the 31st or some date in the future. Nor do our representatives at the Embassy, who are now in regular contact with us. Yesterday, the State Department sent out a survey to collect information about American nationals stranded overseas. There are some 13,500 of our fellow citizens who have requested help to get home. I don’t think we can count on them sending the helicopters any time soon.
We use WhatsApp to communicate with our Embassy reps. “That’s the same group as Doug Perot?” they asked each of us. How Doug became the point man for our group, none of us know, but I felt very important being married to him.
Painting by the window.
Some of my friends back home have told me that I don’t know how bad it is in the US; that I’ll be coming home to a police state. We have exactly the same news as the rest of you. With that, exile in Argentina isn’t markedly different from exile in Maine. I prefer the chipper attitude of my Uncle Bob, who’s in his eighties and immunosuppressed from cancer treatments. I couldn’t go see him before coronavirus, either. Instead of complaining about my absence, he said, “I’m not going anywhere near anyone!” and then told me all the news from Buffalo.
Also in Buffalo, my technologically-impaired brother-in-law saw Kellee Mayfield’s interview with an Arkansas television station. Stuck at home, he’s learning to surf the internet. I didn’t think the old boy had it in him.
Downpour, by Carol L. Douglas. That’s the first rainbow I’ve ever tried to paint.
Yesterday started with a halfhearted rain and moved to a downpour. It’s impossible to paint outdoors in these conditions, so we painted from the windows, or read, or played Scrabble. David Diaz set up in the greenhouse, where he was nearly deafened by the roar of rain hitting the plastic roof. Natalia Andreeva painted Lynn Mehta; if the bad weather continues, she’ll have painted us all by the time we go home. Katie Cundiff taught two university classes.
I spent a lot of time looking out the window, like a child deprived of her recess. The meteoric weather shifts remind me of Frederic Edwin Church’s The Heart of the Andes, that magnificent, show-stopping canvas that now resides at the Met. Even though it was painted in the northern parts of the continent, it captures something of the character of Patagonia as well.

$2 billion in art distributed for free

The Corcoran’s demise is a sad reminder that many cultural institutions in America skitter on the brink of insolvency.

Simplon Pass, 1911, John Singer Sargent, has gone to the National Gallery.

In 2014, the board of trustees for the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, announced that they were closing that venerable institution and offering its assets—for free—to other agencies to manage. That meant its school, its Beaux Arts building, and its collection would all be given away. The assets were staggering, somewhere around $2 billion, and somehow the money machine would be kept out of the process.
This week the deal became final, with the Corcoran board announcingthe dispensation of the final 11,000 artworks. (The National Gallery had first dibs and took about 40% of the collection.) The art school, the building, and about 800 works go to George Washington University. Much of the rest of the collection is headed to the American University Museum, with the Smithsonian American Art Museum and other institutions rounding out the list. The art will stay in Washington, in the public view.
Niagara, 1857, by Frederic Edwin Church, has gone to the National Gallery.
The Corcoran was one of America’s oldest art museums, founded to house the private collection of a 19th century financier, William Wilson Corcoran. Doing nothing by half-measures, Corcoran hired James Renwick, designer of St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York and the Smithsonian ‘Castle’ in Washington, to build his museum.
Corcoran made his fortune on war bonds and retired to a life of philanthropy by 1854. His good works were legion. They included the land and chapel for Oak Hill Cemetery, a benevolent fund for the poor of Georgetown, innumerable gifts to universities, and securing Mount Vernonfor the nation. He was also a southern sympathizer who left for Paris at the outbreak of war.
Forty-two Kids, 1907, George Bellows, has gone to the National Gallery.
Corcoran was also an early patron of American art. He counted painters Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Doughty, and George Innessamong his friends. The Corcoran was established in 1869. Its School of Art was founded in 1878.
Fast forward a century and Corcoran’s vision was showing signs of financial strain. “When news broke that Board was considering selling the building, it felt like every conversation I had placed the beginning of the Museum’s decline to an earlier and earlier point,” wrote Blair Murphy. “One D.C. artist I spoke with argued that the Museum had never recovered from declining to purchase the collection of the shuttered Washington Gallery of Modern Art. That was in 1968.”
Ground swell, 1939, Edward Hopper, has gone to the National Gallery.
In 1989, the gallery agreed to host Robert Mapplethorpe’s The Perfect Moment. Worse, it cancelled the show when trustees and supporters voiced opposition. A change in leadership staved off bankruptcy temporarily. But history conspired against the institution. Rerouted traffic after 9/11 made it harder to get to. In 2005, the museum was unable to raise funds for a highly-touted addition by Frank Gehry. The financial crisis of 2008 hit cultural institutions hard. Giving to the Corcoran fell off sharply.
The Last of the Buffalo, 1888, Albert Bierstadt, has gone to the National Gallery.
Washington is a city of free, government-subsidized museums. The Corcoran was neither. By the end, in 2014, the admission fee was $10. Why pay that when there are so many other options that cost nothing?
The Corcoran’s demise is a sad reminder that many cultural institutions in America skitter on the brink of insolvency. What do we do about that?

Portland Museum of Art’s new admissions policy

If you’re 21 or younger, it’s free, whether you’re from Maine or Madrid.
Redbud Tree in Bottom Land, Red River Gorge, Kentucky, April 17 1968, 1979, Eliot Porter, dye transfer print, courtesy Portland Museum of Art. All pieces in this post are part of their permanent collection.
In my youth, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery offered free admission. If it was too rainy to go to the cemetery or the park, our parents took us to the art gallery. By the time I was aware of my surroundings, it was as familiar to me as my street was. As a teenager and young adult, I continued to visit it regularly. My keen interest in art history started there.
Two Men in a Canoe, 1895, Winslow Homer, watercolor on gray laid paper, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
Beginning tomorrow, Maine’s Portland Museum of Art will be free for anyone 21 or younger. (This extends the museum’s current policy, which is free admission to kids age 14 and younger.) If they sign up for the Susie Konkel Pass, they also will be able to attend free film screenings and receive other benefits.
Mount Katahdin from Millinocket Camp, 1895, Frederic Edwin Church, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
The age of free art galleries is mostly over, which means that parents don’t take their kids to visit much on rainy Saturday afternoons. There are, of course, still hold-outs: the Smithsonian, the Scottish National Gallery, the National Gallery in London, the National Gallery of Victoria, to name a few.
Many museums offer ‘free days’ or limited kids passes. But mostly, it costs money to get in the door. That’s just one more nail in the coffin for kids’ exposure to art, which has been on a downward slide since No Child Left Behind excluded art and music from the nation’s core curriculum.
Beaver Dam Pond, Acadia National Park, 2009, Richard Estes, courtesy Portland Museum of Art.
The stiff admission charged by large museums ($25 for MoMA and the Met, for example) distorts the museum experience. Visitors by necessity rush through and see the highlights of the collection, whizzing past the tiny gems. The farcical end of this kind of experience is the reduction of culture to a selfie with the Mona Lisa.
Susie Konkel, who paid for the Portland Museum’s policy expansion, is a retired teacher from Cape Elizabeth. That’s about all I can find about her on the internet, but it’s an unusual profile for a philanthropist. “Education’s always been very important to me,” she told Maine Public Radio. “And I think every child—not just in Maine—every child around the world should have the opportunity to experience the arts. And they get about 9,000 children here each year, into the museum. And this will just make it endless!”
Castine Harbor, 1852, Fitz Henry Lane, courtesy Portland Museum of Art
As a nation, we spend a lot of time trying to puzzle out why our popular culture seems so crude and violent. Perhaps it’s because we’ve cut off access to refinement in the form of fine art and music.
Thank you, Ms. Konkel, for trying to reverse this trend. I like to imagine cliques of teenagers stopping by the Portland Museum to catch a movie. May many, many of them take advantage of your generosity.

Monday Morning Art School: Repoussoir

If your landscape is flat and delicate, you can introduce drama using this framing device.

Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, Gustave Caillebotte (courtesy Art Institute of Chicago). 

Repoussoir is a compositional technique where an object along the left or right foreground directs the viewer’s eye into the composition. The bracket is often done with a tree, but sometimes it’s a person. In Paris Street; Rainy Day(above) the man with the umbrella on the far right of the canvas drives your eye up. Note that he’s a simplified and non-distracting figure compared to the complexity and detail of the rest of the canvas.

The Art of Painting, 1665-68, Johannes Vermeer (courtesy Kunsthistorisches Museum) 

Repoussoir was an important special effect of the 17th century. Vermeer used it in The Art of Painting, above. The great dark shape of the drapery drives our eye to the traceries of the map on the far wall.

El Río de Luz (The River of Light), 1877, Frederic Edwin Church (Courtesy National Gallery of Art)

The Dutch Golden Age painters particularly loved repoussioras a way to pop drama into the flat, Dutch landscape. So did the Hudson River Schoolpainters. The example above, is by Frederick Edwin Church. Church was keenly interested in the flora and fauna of the tropics. There’s a canoe in the distance and waterfowl in the middle-foreground, but the tree on the left conveys most of our factual information about the scene. But it’s still a framing device, and what lies beyond is even more important. That’s our impression of the terrifying sublimity of the steaming riverbed beyond. (You can look at the painting in detail here.)

Nunda Farm, by Carol L. Douglas. This is not repoussoir, but rather a path drawing you into the composition.

Repoussoir is still extensively used in modern photography and landscape painting. It is a different effect from creating a path into the composition. I’ve given you an example of that in Nunda Farm, above, where the corn stalks draw your eye through the composition.

Repoussoir gone bad, by Carol L. Douglas. Why do you think the evergreen on the right fails to draw you into the composition?

I’ve also given you a failed sketch by me as an example of how repoussoir can go wrong. I was searching for a way to give perspective to a scene of unbroken snow and darkness. The small pine at the right doesn’t exist in the real scene. I abandoned this composition because the tree conflicted with, rather than enhanced, the main subject. Why do you think it didn’t work?

Hedgerow in Paradise, by Carol L. Douglas. I’m deliberately blocking the viewer out here. Why do you think that is?

Hedgerow in Paradiseis a painting of a farm in Bloomfield, New York. This is an area of delicate beauty, where the flat lake plains are tentatively breaking out into gentle rolling hills. I intentionally chose to let the long view sit alone, giving the viewer no framing and no path into the subject. In other words, there’s no real foreground, just a scene set in the middle distance.

Hedgerow in Paradise, reimagined with repoussoir. How does it change the composition?

Above, I’ve imposed a tree in the foreground. Does it add to or distract from the subject? How does it change the meaning of the composition?

In your work, do you have something similar to Hedgerow in Paradise? Your assignment is to do a sketch based on that painting or drawing, reframing the composition using repoussoir. If you don’t have a painting like this, use a photograph from the internet. I’m interested in the before-and-after. I used Photoshop, but you can do a simple sketch. It doesn’t need to be complicated. How is the scene changed with repoussoir? Do you like it better or not?
Repoussoir is a technique that’s particularly applicable to the midwestern plains and to ocean views. I’ll be stressing it at my Rochester workshop because of the delicacy of the glacial landscape at Mendon Ponds, but it works well with water, too.

Olana mucks up

Is there anyone in America who doesn’t understand that white colonists were bad? How does pissing on Frederic Church’s front lawn help?

Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
OVERLOOK: Teresita Fernández confronts Frederic Church at Olana opened on May 17. I like the management of Olana, which is very welcoming to landscape artists, so I feel badly writing this. But Jesús Rafael Soto’s installation on the lawn violates the work of art closest to Frederic Edwin Church’s heart—Olana itself.
By 1876, Church—the most successful artist of his day—was crippled by rheumatoid arthritis. Compensating, he poured his heart into the design of the house and grounds at Olana, shaping the landscape as a frame for magnificent views of the Hudson and far Catskills. Obliterating the views with a cascade of urine-colored plastic defaces his vision.
Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
Olana’s grounds are a mecca for landscape painters. New York Plein Air Painters holds its annual retreat there. The historic site holds an annual plein air painting event. Many artists, including my friend Jamie Williams Grossman, who took these photos, visit there regularly to paint.
“Fernández seeks to respond to their interpretations and biases through a conversation about a deeper sense of these varied American cultures, contesting the iconic view of the ‘American Landscape’ painting tradition constructed by Church and his peers that often omitted or erased other narratives and figures,” read Olana’s press release.
Yawn. The problem with much conceptual art is that its ideas are so often stale. Is there anyone in America who doesn’t understand that white colonists ignored native cultures? How does pissing on Church’s front lawn help?
Of course, the overwriting of culture in South America wasn’t done by Church and his painterly peers. It was done by the rapacious, vicious Spanish, who were the worst of colonists. If the artists in this show want a serious talk about cultural appropriation, they could start by examining their own Hispanic surnames.
Church didn’t paint the people and cultures of South America for the same reason he didn’t paint the Inuit above the Arctic Circle or the settlers at Niagara: he was a landscape painter, interested in natural science. What human habitation exists in his structures is incidental, there to create visual interest.
Because of Church’s clever site design, Soto’s sculpture mucks up almost every great view from the lawn. Photo courtesy of Jamie Williams Grossman.
He was painting for an audience which had little opportunity to understand the New World. Science was beginning to be popularized in the nineteenth century, but it was still very much a gentleman’s pursuit. Mass media was in its infancy.
“The vastness of this continent were yet unrevealed to us,” wrote S. G. W. Benjamin in 1879. “With the enthusiasm of a Raleigh or a Balboa he [Church] has explored land and sea, combining the elements of explorer and artist… Our civilization needed exactly this form of art expression at this period, and the artist appeared who taught the people to love beauty and to find it.”
Olana overlook, approaching sunset, 12X16 oil, by little ol’ me. I’ve painted this scene many times, and it never grows old.
“This marks the first time Soto’s immensely popular interactive sculpture will be experienced by the public in a naturalistic setting, and it’s the first time it will be seen on the East Coast.”
It may have been immensely popular in Los Angeles, but it’s obscuring the view in Hudson. I won’t be painting there this season.

Oh, happy day!

Overlook at Olana, 9X12, by Carol L. Douglas
There is a limit to the mileage you can get out of caffeine and vitamins, and although I haven’t hit it yet, I sense the end is near. And yet today is one of the maddest, gladdest days of my painting year and it’s dawning spectacularly. This is the day that the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Sketch for south façade of the main house at Olana, Frederic Edwin Church, c. 1870, watercolor, ink and graphite on paper.
Every year, the chapters of New York Plein Air Painters congregate at Olana for a one-day paintout and picnic lunch. Olana is the palatial home of Hudson River School painter Frederic Church. It overlooks the Hudson, with fantastic vistas in every direction.
Olana is not just your typical rich man’s confection of Victorian whimsy. It was designed by architect Calvert Vaux but the influence of the artist is apparent everywhere.
Painting at Olana with Nancy Woogen, right.
In the fall of 1869 Frederic and Isabel Church returned from an 18-month-long trip to Europe and the Middle East. Impressed by the architecture they saw in Beirut, Jerusalem and Damascus, they envisioned a home that would incorporate Moorish elements. 
The facade at Olana.
As many times as I’ve looked at the house, it never fully registered to me that the cornices were not tiled, but stenciled. Church translated the tile work he saw in Islamic mosques into stencil patterns, which he used inside and out. Hundreds of his pencil and oil sketches for them survive.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in August 2015. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.


Celebrity intellectuals

The Heart of the Andes, 1858, Frederic Edwin Church. It is useless to imagine this painting from a photo; it has to be seen. You can do that at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
There’s a Humboldt Street in Rochester, a Humboldt Parkway in Buffalo, and various fixtures named Humboldt across our country.  I had the vague idea that he was a famous explorer, but last week it clicked that he was the fellow whose work inspired Frederic Church’s The Heart of the Andes.
Alexander von Humboldt was the last of that breed of brilliant scientific generalists, largely self-taught, who contributed so much to the world’s knowledge of botany and geography. Between 1799 and 1804, he traveled throughout South America, exploring and describing it in scientific terms.
Humboldt is the first person to have realized that the coasts of South America and Africa dovetail, and he proposed the idea that they might have once been joined. He noted that volcanoes fall in linear chains and demonstrated the fallacy of the idea that rocks were formed from the world’s oceans. He laid the foundations of modern geography and meteorology. In his spare time, he surveyed Cuba and stopped to visit President Thomas Jefferson at the White House.
Self-portrait, 1815, Alexander von Humboldt. Gentlemen-scientists once knew how to draw.
Humboldt saw the physical world as a unified system and the physical sciences as interlinked. He understood that botany was dependent on biology, meteorology, and geology. To prove that required the time-consuming analysis of the data he’d collected in South America.  This took him 21 years and he never felt it was complete, but it changed the way we see the world.
He expected artists to play a part in the collection of natural data, by accurately portraying the landscape. Humboldt recognized landscape painting—then in its own infancy—as among the highest expressions of love of nature.
Enter the brilliant American painter and entrepreneur, Frederic Edwin Church. In 1853 and 1859, Church traveled to South America to replicate Humboldt’s journeys. While Humboldt had used family money to finance his explorations, Church enlisted an American financier, Cyrus West Field, who wanted to encourage investment in his South American ventures.
Isothermal chart of the world, cartographer William Channing Woodbridge, made using Humboldt’s data.
The Heart of the Andes is a composite of South American topography and botany. Its monumental scale and detail can’t be appreciated through photographs; you really need to go to New York to see it in person.
But that was pre-Civil War America, where there wasn’t even a decent railroad system. The painting went on tour, visiting seven American cities and London. At its opening in New York (April 29 to May 23, 1859) 12,000 people paid a quarter apiece to see it. People swooned. It was the talk of the town.
Geography of Plants in the Tropics, 1805, Alexander von Humboldt and A.G. Bonpland.
At the end of its tour, Church sold the painting for $10,000—at the time, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist.
Both Humboldt and Church were famous in their day. A world that reveres science and art is a world that is well-read, disciplined, and thoughtful. Compare that to our current fascination with the Kardashians, and you might get the idea that we’re in trouble.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me on the Schoodic Peninsula in beautiful Acadia National Park in 2015 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops! Download a brochure here.

Heart of the Andes

The Heart of the Andes, 1859, Frederic Edwin Church
Next month I’ll be down at Olana (the home of Frederic Edwin Church) to paint with friends from New York Plein Air Painters. To prepare myself, I stopped by the Metropolitan Museum to visit his most famous painting, The Heart of the Andes.
This is an enormous canvas—ten feet wide and five feet high—that depicts the whole panoply of earthly conditions, from the peak of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador in the far distance to the lush jungle landscape lying at our feet.
The Heart of the Andes, 1859, (detail) Frederic Edwin Church, showing the focal tree at the lower left.
Church visited Ecuador and Columbia twice. He was retracing the journeys of a famous 19th century naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt. The Heart of the Andes is a composite view, including topography from many places.  The enormity of the canvas allows him to use more than one focal light. There is human activity, most noticeably on the path that leads us in to the cross, but we are cut off from most of it.
The Heart of the Andes, 1859, (detail) Frederic Edwin Church, showing the remarkably intricate foliage running along the right.
In the month of its first showing (in 1859) more than 12,000 people paid a quarter each to see it, waiting for hours in line.
“Nobody would pay a quarter to see a painting today,” Brad Marshall said as we looked at it. “They’d just look at it online.” But no photograph can capture this painting, particularly the intricate work running through the foreground.
The Heart of the Andes, 1859, (detail) Frederic Edwin Church, showing the church and village in the middle distance. There are worlds within worlds in this painting and the mind boggles at the idea of how he sketched it out.
Church eventually sold the work for $10,000, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist.


Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Belfast, Maine in August, 2014 or in Rochester at any time. Click 
here for more information on my Maine workshops!