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Revisiting a frozen sea

Frederic Church, a 19th-century American landscape painter, created "The Iceberg," reflecting his travels and studies of nature. Inspired by German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, Church journeyed to South America and the Arctic. His later works, like "The Iceberg," show a nostalgic, reflective approach, capturing the beauty and fragility of the natural world. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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  • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
    In the earlier lesson about Audubon, it was noted that his Birds of America were drawn or painted "from life". The dating of Church's journeys and subsequent paintings suggests painted "from memory". Would "painted from fantasy" also apply?
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Video transcript

(gentle music) - [Beth] We're here in the storage room at the Terra Foundation for American Art, looking at a rather late painting by an important 19th-century American landscape painter Frederic Church. This is "The Iceberg." - [Peter] It's a take on an earlier subject for Church, like many of his pictures of this period. And we know around 1875/76, he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, so his ability to paint was becoming more and more circumscribed. - [Beth] Church was a student of Thomas Cole, so we think of the Hudson River school and the painting of upstate New York. - [Peter] Church built on Cole's model in the grand scale of the American landscape. From there, though, Church began to look for other sources of inspiration, and he as lead to the writings to the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who had earlier traveled to South America and studied the volcanoes of Ecuador in the surrounding areas. These studies would become the source material for his popular publications, and Church was an avid reader of Humboldt. These led him to first embark on a period of study in South America, eventually making two trips to study in Colombia and in Ecuador. And then after, caught up in the spirit of the age and all of the avid interest in the Arctic, he made a trip in 1859 to the coast of Newfoundland, where he hoped to observe icebergs. - [Beth] When he's on these travels, he's doing studies. - [Peter] Intense study of both what is seen, what is not seen, and then a return to the studio to begin to blend together the various scenes into these grand composite canvases. His sojourn in the Arctic resulted in the grand painting called "The Icebergs" of 1861, a very large painting, a very ambitious painting. Church put that painting on display as a single-painting exhibition. Interestingly, when he is painting his later works in the 1870s and into the '80s, there is a particular tendency to revisit sites of his famous conquests, in South America, in the Mediterranean region, in the Arctic, and to reassemble his sketches for one last attempt to capture the beauty of those far-flung landscapes. - [Beth] This does feel like a painting based in memory. We know that when he was on this voyage to the Arctic, he was on a schooner, that he took a rowboat to get closer to the icebergs. And so when I look at this painting, I imagine Church as an older man thinking back to those voyages, reminiscing, maybe even a sense of nostalgia, of longing, to take those trips once again. - [Peter] It is a reflective work, and I think it is synthesizing, not only bringing together his various views from this trip to the Arctic, but also incorporating aspects of his treatment of light that is characteristic of many of his major works from Jerusalem, from the Parthenon, the lighting of that central iceberg. Of course, we're seeing this at twilight, at dusk. The sun is going down, and it's just catching the last tips of the upper echelons of this singular iceberg. When we look back at Church's famous 1861 composition "The Icebergs," we see multiple ice formations in that picture, and all we can see is ice. Here, there is a horizon beyond this iceberg that the viewer can take in, a distancing effect, giving us a broader perspective, with many of the details softened, so to speak. - [Beth] We are at a time in American history where there is growing awareness of the value of a natural environment, the way that it's being rapidly transformed by industrialization, and the need for protection of these really beautiful natural places. - [Peter] It's during these decades that the U.S. government is beginning to set aside land for the preservation of what become national parks. There is a growing awareness in the 1860s and '70s of man's impact on the Earth. I always read the reduced scale of this iceberg as pointing in that direction, whereas the earlier picture in 1861 is filled with ice, here, that iceberg has shrunken a bit. And it certainly speaks to our early 21st-century sensibility about the thawing of the icebergs, of the rise of ocean waters, and I think it poignantly reminds us of our impact on the Earth and its delicate balance. (gentle music)