We've all done it, especially those who grew up in or near cities; stood in a line, often stretching around the block, slowly moving closer and closer to the window where we paid our twenty-five cents and then went inside to see an afternoon matinee. The year was 1859. A similar line stretched out for more than a block. In just three weeks, twelve thousand people paid their quarters to see a picture...not a MOVING picture, but a painting. As movie screens go, it wasn't very big. But for a painting, it's six-foot by ten-foot dimensions were adequately impressive. The place was New York City, the studio of Frederic Edwin Church. The painting was entitled "Heart of the Andes." As a movie critic might intone, it was exotic, expansive, exciting, beautiful to look at and breathtaking to contemplate. Though not "shot" on location, nor even depicting an actual scene, Church had been there and done that, his work based upon hundreds of sketches made on location over a period of almost a year trekking up and down the mountains of Ecuador with his friend and fellow landscape painter, Charles Remy Mignot.
Church was kind of the painting equivalent of Cecil B. DeMille. He was an expert draftsman, a brilliantly accomplished painter, a stickler for details, an expert naturalist, a world traveler, a consummate showman, and probably the first artist in American history to become a millionaire. His Persian style mansion on a hill towering one-hundred feet over the Hudson River not only bears witness to his nineteenth century taste in architecture and landscaping, but also his prodigious painting accomplishments during his lifetime. Church was born in 1826 into a wealthy Hartford, Connecticut, family. His artistic pedigree springs from an apprenticeship to none other than the painting icon of the Hudson River School, Thomas Cole himself. With Cole's death in 1849, Church became the unquestioned leader of this famed "institution." But Church's name had bigger things written on it. Based solely on the strength of a single painting, "West Rock, New Haven," Church became the youngest member ever to be elected to the prestigious National Academy of Design. He was 23.
"West Rock, New Haven" sold to Cyrus W. Field of transatlantic cable fame. The two became close friends as Field often accompanied Church on drawing excursions into the New England countryside. In 1853, Church took Field with him on his first trip to South America. The painting, "The Andes of Ecuador" was the result of that little expedition. At a mere four-foot by six-foot, it's somewhat smaller than his blockbuster hit a few years later, but still big enough and strong enough to establish his reputation as the most important landscape painter in America. Both paintings were full of conceptual analogies involving the harmony of nature, man, and God based upon the theories extolled by English art critic John Ruskin and the German scientist/philosopher, Alexander von Humboldt. However, these concepts were confounded in 1859 by the publication of Darwin's "Origin of the Species," which proposed the theory that nature was based, not on harmonies, upon competition and struggle; disputing the assumption that nature offered any kind of model for man's moral guidance. Church died in 1900, somewhat disillusioned perhaps, that his art and his "landscape philosophy" were no longer in style. Yet today, his grandiose visions of exotic earthly beauty still loom large--landscape painting so magnificent as to be more accurately deemed, "earthscapes."