Frederic Church Collection featured at the Met's new American wing

Frederic Edwin Church, Sunset across the Hudson Valley, 1870. object number 1917-4-582-a

Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum’s collection of over 2,000 oil sketches and graphite drawings by Frederic Church was mentioned recently in the New York Times in connection with the reopening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s American Wing. According to the Met’s Curator of American Paintings, Elizabeth Kornhauser, fourteen Cooper-Hewitt oil sketches were selected for the presentation because “The Met’s collection contains virtually no oil sketches by Hudson River landscape painters.” When the Metropolitan was building its American collections, large studio pictures made for exhibition were the only paintings considered of value. As a result of new scholarship over the last thirty years, however, the role of oil sketches in the creative process of American landscape painters has been analyzed and their unique virtues appreciated. For nineteenth-century American landscape painters, sketching out-of-doors in graphite, chalk, or watercolor was part of the artistic process, and the initial way in which they directly experienced the natural world. Sketching was followed by painted sketches, based on the graphite drawings, worked up in the studio; and finally by the grand pictures that were exhibited and sold. The father of Hudson River School painters, Thomas Cole, sketched from nature and taught this practice to his student Frederic Church when Church studied with him in Catskill, NY, between 1844 and 1846. Church maintained this close observation of nature throughout his long career.

Frederic Edwin Church, Cloudy Skies, 1865 object number 1917-4-409-b

Three of CHM’s Church oil sketches hang in the first American Wing gallery of Hudson River School painters. They are Mount Katahdin Rising Over Katahdin Lake (before 1878), Surf Pounding Against the Rocky Maine Coast (1862); and Sunset across the Hudson Valley (June 1870). In another gallery of enormous exhibition paintings are five of Cooper-Hewitt’s most inspiring oil sketches:

  • Cloudy Skies, Jamaica (August 1865)
  • Floating Iceberg (1859)
  • Cloudy Skies, Jamaica (August 1865)
  • Mount Chimborazo, Ecuador (1857)
  • Mount Chimborazo Seen Through Rising Mist and Clouds (1857)

Three works hang between Church’s Aegean Sea and The Parthenon from the Met’s collection, while Floating Iceberg and Off Iceberg, New Foundland [sic] (1859) hang on the opposite wall. The eight Cooper-Hewitt oil sketches will be exhibited through June 2012, after which they will be rotated with other examples from Cooper-Hewitt’s collection, which will be on view until December 2012. Admiring comments from visitors — "Nice, very nice,” or “They look like they could have been painted yesterday” — capture the special qualities of these oil sketches that are lacking in most of the larger surrounding paintings. Unlike the more grand pictures painted in the studio, Church’s oil sketches, for the most part painted out-of-doors (en plein air), convey the immediate effects of an unidealized nature: the movement of clouds, the temperature of the air, and the fascination with light and color. They give new meaning to the expression “up close and personal.” Church was a master at capturing nature at its most awesome.

Frederic Edwin Church, Floating Iceberg, 1859 object number 1917-4-296-a

Cooper-Hewitt is fortunate to hold the largest number of works by Frederic Church in the world, over twice the number of works in the collection at Church’s home, Olana, in Hudson, NY. The oil sketches were given to Cooper-Hewitt early in its history, in 1917, from Church’s son Louis Palmer Church, when the family wanted to empty Olana’s cluttered attic and painting studio. The Hewitt sisters, who acquired the collection, are to be commended for their foresight in encouraging art students and the general public to value and appreciate Church’s depiction of the national landscape.