Home of the mythological goddess Athena, the Parthenon is a hauntingly sacred place where the air is ominously rife with magic. Or, at least, that is the mood evoked in Frederic Edwin Church’s (1826-1900) oil sketch of the Parthenon. To create this effect, Church chose to paint the building from below, giving the impression that it looms over the viewer. In reality, this particular view of the Parthenon does not exist, but is rather contrived from composite views and memory. The contrast of red and blue illumination was also almost certainly invented by the artist. Church used a similar technique while painting icebergs along the Labrador coast. Church’s occasional use of artificially-colored lighting suggests that the lighting in this particular sketch was also introduced by him for dramatic effect.

Church’s artistic career began by faithfully reproducing the American wilderness in the Berkshires, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. From 1844 until 1846, he learned to paint from Thomas Cole and became the star pupil of the Hudson River School artist. Church began creating his own compositions from memory rather than painting actual scenes from nature. This gained him international acclaim. Part of the American Romantic movement in the 19th century, Church sought to create feelings of both awe and fear within his work. In April 1869, he sailed to Greece, where he was amazed by the Parthenon. He called it “the culmination of the genius of man in architecture,” and sought to create a painting that captured the majesty of the structure.This sketch was actually a study for the final painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection.

After 1870, Church’s pace slowed and his rheumatoid arthritis, diagnosed in 1876, severely limited his ability to paint. When he was no longer active, his fame dwindled and his death, in 1900, passed unnoticed. In the last sixty years, Church’s works have experienced a resurgence in popularity. Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum holds more than 2,000 oil sketches and graphite drawings—the largest collection of works by Church in the world.

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