After spending the better part of an hour viewing “Treasures from Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church,” which opened January 27 at the Princeton University Art Museum, I left with mixed feelings about the exhibit. Most of the pictures on display suggested a sort of hybrid, as of “finished works in progress” in the form of studies of scenes in Greece, Mexico, the Andes, Jamaica, and the Middle East. Because Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) worked “on location” in oil rather than pen and ink, the results do look “finished” even though his intention was not to sell or display them but to develop them on much larger canvases. As a consequence, certain paintings leave you wishing you could see the end product while others show enough aesthetic imagination to stand on their own.
If, like this reviewer, you’re a compulsive, not to say obsessive, sunset-watcher, you may find your personal experience of spectacular sunsets subtly undermining your appreciation of Church’s renditions, particularly those where he seems less intent on creating his own spectacle than on faithfully depicting nature. One relatively unimpressive rendering of an impressive subject is Twilight: A Sketch. You don’t need to be a sunset aficionado to have witnessed at some point in your life a spectacle similar to this profoundly intense reddening of a cloudscape. Although Church could have done more with it, perhaps giving the fiery sky an infernal or apocalyptic radiance, he chose to serve rather than interpret or glorify or demonize the vision. Another story, literally, is the sinking sunset he captured in Jamaica in 1865 and later developed into a large painting called The After Glow, completed after his sister died in 1867. The visionary intensity of the piece has inspired the curator to invoke language like “divine,” “celestial display,” and “explosive radiance” in the accompanying note. In this case, Church put the full weight of the surrounding darkness on the climactic glory of the setting sun, exalting the image beyond the faithful recording of a natural event, however “unusual or unexpected,” so that the shafts of light all but insist on being read as emblems of transcendence or divinity. This is the same artist who built a Victorian orientalist fantasy castle affording him a spectacular view of the Hudson River Valley and whose letters, as quoted by Clive Aslet in an article about Olana, speak of “aerial phenomena” that seemed “a revelation of the godhead” and of “splendid meteoric displays, magnificent sunsets and auroras, red, green, yellow and blue.”
According to art historian Gail S. Davidson, Church was a master of self-promotion famous for working on the grand scale, and what could be grander than Niagara Falls? And what better example of why these studies should not be judged as representative of the completed paintings than the sketch from which he made his seven-foot-long, three-and-one-half-foot-high panorama of the falls? To “maximize the press coverage for his project and whet the appetite of potential buyers,” Church sold the painting along with the publication rights directly to a New York dealer who then commissioned a chromolithograph that was “sold along the tour.” Davidson suggests that thanks to the marketing campaign, Church’s Niagara “supplanted Niagara itself as the symbol of America, and helped establish the artist’s reputation as the greatest living landscapist.” As part of the American display in the Paris 1867 Exposition Universelle, “its symbolism and virtuoso technique created a sensation.”
Location is Everything
The one large, finished painting on display here, El Khasné, Petra, as impressive as it is in scale, illustrates the gulf between this classic, travel brochure image of “rosered Petra” framed by the natural portal hewn out of a cliff and a complexly imagined and executed painting like Mexican Forest (1891). Placement, however, can make all the difference. This same painting of Petra hung above the fireplace in the sitting room of Olana where the artist and his family or guests could imagine themselves looking through the cleft of dark rock at the actual rose-hued ruins of Petra. In fact, the roseate radiance is reflected throughout the color scheme of the room. With a fire going and that exotic view above it, the splendor of the painting would be heightened in a way simply not possible in a museum, no matter how effectively displayed.
Two of the most fully imagined and evocative works on view justify Church’s preference for residing on a site overlooking the world (“From an eminence you take in the beauties only”). Hudson Valley in Winter (1872) offers a vision so surreal it seems to be the work of an artist who has lived and worked not outside but inside the clouds, the inhabitant of a realm where ordinary determinants of horizon, earth, water, sky, even perspective, have dissolved into the white radiance of art. That Church considered his “mountain” domain a castle in the clouds can be seen in Clouds Over Olana, another fairytale vision he painted in 1872. “Almost an hour south of Albany is the Center of the World,” he once declared. “I own it.” And in case we doubt that he does, he signed and dated the painted hill his fairytale castle was erected on and from which he liked to sketch “some of the fine things happening in the sky,”
The Art of Seeing
In his book The Art of Seeing, Aldous Huxley discusses ways of compensating for or correcting various forms of deficient vision. I began to feel the afterglow of the Church exhibit (so much for mixed feelings) as I wandered through the permanent collection. Besides providing an eye exercise not unlike the sort Huxley recommends, the imagery I’d been so intensely focused on made me all the more receptive to works of art elsewhere in the museum. For instance, I found myself drawn to Ilya Repin’s Golgotha, a massive oil on reversed linoleum that seemed especially compatible with the moods and tones and colors I’d absorbed in the Church exhibit, as if some of the fire of those sunsets had spilled over into the vast sinister haze of Repin’s vision with its vague blurred pinks and the bar of red light near the site of the fallen cross. And perhaps because of the absence of human forms or faces in “Treasures from Olana,” I spent several minutes admiring Jean-Jacques Henners’s fiercely alive Portrait of a Woman, with its dusky reddish-brown tones again reflecting something of Church’s color scheme.
It may be an optical illusion, but when you return to the light of day after your eyes and mind have been immersed in art, you really do seem to be not only seeing more but perceiving more. My own post-museum experience was heightened by the nature of the exhibit, all those landscapes and cloudscapes where the only living thing I could recall seeing was the white bird flying through the elaborate foliage in Mexican Forest.
When I walked out of the museum at around 4:30 on a late January Sunday afternoon, I had been focused on Church’s unpeopled vistas for more than an hour. And what did I see? An unpeopled vista stretching, starkly spacious, from the museum past the chapel and Chancellor Green all the way to Nassau Street. The absence of humanity opened everything up. The extended scale of the plaza stretching from Firestone Library to the passage through Chancellor Green struck me as if I were apprehending the expanded space for the first time. It wasn’t merely a matter of human absence; it was because my vision had been shaped by an hour of looking closely and intently at vivid artwork.
Speaking of vision, however, I have one quibble with “Treasures from Olana.” As attractively as the exhibit is arranged, it’s hard to read the information on the accompanying note cards when the words are printed in white letters on a pink background. Given the pink walls, the idea may have been to blend with Church’s sunsets or the colors of Petra, and though it’s effective at a distance, it’s a strain to read, and, as Huxley would understand, straining your vision has no place in either the seeing of art or the art of seeing.
The Princeton University Art Museum is the final of six venues for the exhibition, which was organized by Karl Kusserow, assistant curator of later Western art.
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