Canvas captures war’s moods

Olana show explores impact of Civil War on work of Church

HUDSON-What does a painter do when he is about to have a big exhibition and suddenly civil war breaks out? That was the dilemma faced by Frederic Church in May of 1861.

Goupil’s gallery in lower Manhattan was ready to stage a public viewing of The Icebergs, an ambitious, large, and luminous new work that depicted the ice formations off the coast of Labrador near the Arctic. Church was known for his heroic paintings of exotic places so remote they were only seen by explorers.

With the start of the war, the public was caught up in an emotional response to the harsh defeat suffered by Union troops at Fort Sumter, the first battle of the Civil War. Feverish crowds let off steam in public rallies as some men joined the army and left for the South. It seemed no one would want to attend an art exhibit even to see a painting by Frederic Church.

The iceberg paintings are just the beginning of a story told by Curator Evelyn Trebilcock and Associate Curator Valerie Balint of the Olana Partnership. In a new exhibit, Rally ‘Round the Flag: Frederic Edwin Church and the Civil War,” they delve into the rich trove of the Olana archive, much of which was assembled by the artist and passed on intact to the Olana Historic Site. The 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War provides the occasion for the exhibition.

The subject provides an opportunity to exhibit some rarely seen works alongside familiar paintings and sketches exhibited in a new context. Olana does not own any of Church’s larger masterpieces, which went to collectors and museums during the artist’s lifetime, nor would it have room for them, but it has plenty of smaller works that provide perfect illustrations for telling the story of one painter’s reaction to the Civil War.

In support of the Union cause, Church renamed his icy work “The North,” which was seen as a patriotic reference. He spread the word of his intention to sign over the proceeds from admissions to the show to the Union Patriotic Fund to aid soldiers’ families in spite of his need for cash at the time. The show was a success.

In the past, an eager public had lined up and paid 25 five cents apiece earning the artist thousands of dollars for the exhibition of an earlier large scale work the “Heart of the Andes” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

Church did not serve in the Union Army and may have paid a substitute soldier to serve in his stead, as did many who had the means. Two of his close colleagues died in the struggle. And at the war’s end, he and his wife lost both their young children to diphtheria. Still, the period was a most productive time for him as an artist and a businessman.

Our Banner in the Sky, Church’s image of the tattered American flag that appears to be composed of a sky streaked with parallel zones of red and white sunrise, with a few lingering night stars in the upper left corner, struck a responsive chord in the consciousness of the public. Reproduced as a color lithograph enhanced with oil paint, the print sold in record numbers.

“It’s an extremely powerful image,” said Ms. Barlint. “It correlates with Francis Scott Key’s poem the Star Spangled Banner, which was not yet our national anthem. It makes you think of the line ‘by the dawn’s early light.’”

Most critics see this period as the time Church created his most important works, the most famous canvases of his life, and reached the peak of his artistic powers and painterly virtuosity.

Kevin J. Avery, a Church research scholar at the Metropolitan Museum, believes that Church’s work during this time can be seen as a visual barometer that reflected what was going on during the war, becoming fierce, dark, and turbulent as in the works, Under Niagara, Cotapoxi, and Twilight, during the most intense part of the struggle, and more lyrical as in a study for Rainy Season in the Tropics,  and in his aurora borealis paintings as the tide of war began to favor of the Union side. Visitors to Rally ‘Round the Flag will see that Church traveled across a huge range of emotion in the paintings he created during this critical time in his career and life.

As in last year’s exhibition that focused on Church’s post war interlude in Jamaica that inaugurated the site’s new second floor gallery, the Olana curators have provided a supplementary exhibition of work by Church’s contemporaries. This exhibition features five works by a young colleague of Church from the Tenth Street Studio building in Greenwich Village in Manhattan, John S. Jameson, who perished in a southern prison after enlisting late in the war.

Church had been impressed by the younger artist’s work, and so was a recent visitor, David Tafler, a visiting professor from Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, who happened to visit the gallery on the same day as this reporter’s preview. He was struck by the dynamic composition and lighting of Jamison’s canvas, A Storm — Summer Afternoon from the Sharpe Collection, saying he felt that had the artist not perished in the war he would surely have had an illustrious career. Another work by this little know artist, a thrillingly moody light structure, is reminiscent of a famous Italian Renaissance canvas, the Tempest by Giorgione. The five landscapes were worthy of exhibition with the master, an observation that underlined the tragic loss of creativity and human enterprise that any war represents. 

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