In Search of Icebergs
Tracing the 1859 expedition of the painter Frederic Edwin Church to Newfoundland and Labrador
Dr. Barbara Matilsky
The first glimmers of light on June 14, 2008 ushered in our 5,000 mile journey from North Carolina to the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador. Without air-conditioning in our 1987 Volkswagon Van, we were determined to rise early and leave behind the searing, 100-degree day predicted. What we had not anticipated was a Code Red-Ozone Alert triggered by wild peat fires smoldering near the coast, which tainted the Piedmont atmosphere. Our five-week escape north was a calculated respite from the environmental hazards that suffocate life in Chapel Hill this time of year. But we were energized by a loftier mission: to trace an expedition in quest of icebergs launched by the renowned American landscape painter, Frederic Edwin Church (1829-1900) as the fate of the Poles hangs precariously in the balance.
Fig. 1 Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861,
oil on canvas, 64 1/2 x 112 1/2 inches, Dallas
Museum of Art, Anonymous gift, 1979.28
One hundred and fifty years ago, a thirty-year-old artist, flush with money from the sale of his acclaimed painting, The Heart of the Andes (1859, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, fig. 17 ), traveled from his studio in New York City to Battle Harbour, Labrador via Newfoundland. During his six-week journey, Church completed over a hundred pencil and oil sketches that documented the continuously changing effects of light on icebergs adrift from Greenland glaciers. As an amateur naturalist, Church keenly observed details of the environment, capturing the complex shapes and irregular profiles of ice mountains from all angles. Studying these fantastic, frozen formations provided the artist with the insight and technique to create what is considered one of the great landscapes of the nineteenth century. The Icebergs(1861, Dallas Museum of Art), exhibited in New York, Boston, and London, reflected the nineteenth-century public fascination with the Arctic (fig. 1). People paid 25 cents to view Church’s painting, which provided a vicarious experience of Earth’s extremity, perhaps reminding them of the adventures as well as tragic fate of legions of explorers who sought an elusive northern route to Asia. The Icebergs is relevant once again as we confront the environmental cataclysm of vanishing ice around the globe.
Before our trip, we read After Icebergs with a Painter (1861) by Louis Legrand Noble (1813 -1882), a poet and writer invited by Church to document his journey (fig. 2). The author had earlier written a biography of Thomas Cole, considered the dean of American landscape painting. Church studied with Cole from 1844 to 1846 and later paid homage to the master with paintings that referenced his biblical landscapes. Noble, a clergyman who became the pastor of both artists, often waxed rhapsodic about the hand of God in the smallest and grandest natural phenomena. His writing appears sympathetic to the ideas of transcendental philosophers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau who, through essays and the lecture circuit, popularized the connections between spiritual and ecological ideas in nineteenth-century culture.
Fig. 2 Cover for After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Around Newfoundland, 1861, by Louis Legrand Noble
After Icebergs with a Painter also fulfilled a practical purpose; it was strategically published to coincide with The Iceberg’s debut, proving Church, who understood the power of the media for self-promotion, to be a savvy businessman. Before the age of film, Church’s cinematic painting complemented Noble’s literary interpretation of the remote, sublime Arctic environment. The painting’s epic scale, a little over five by nine feet (163.8 x 285.7 cm), capitalized on the public’s passion for polar expeditions, more crudely visualized through hand-painted moving panorama, successful commercial enterprises that both entertained and educated.
We read the book together out loud in front of a winter fire before hitting the road and again huddled in our van in Newfoundland as temperatures plunged near the freezing mark. Not surprisingly, some passages sounded archaic, but most eloquently captured the essence of the region in expansive detail. Noble’s account presented both extreme contrasts and uncanny similarities to our own experiences.
The author cloaked his narrative in safari-like metaphors: The ship’s crew vigilantly stood guard for icebergs and their prey was routinely hunted down. After chasing the formations, they moved in for close observation:
Our game, for once, is the wandering alp of the waves; our wilderness, the ocean; our steed, the winged vessel; our arms, the pencil and the pen; our game-bags, the portfolio, painting-box, and note-book… (p.3)
By contrast, we surfed for our “alp of the waves” through a website appropriately named Icebergfinder.com. It tracks formations off the north and eastern coasts of Newfoundland and southern Labrador by size, type, and location via satellite imagery. This region, known as Iceberg Alley, attracts tourists hoping to glimpse the last vestiges of nature’s most majestic features. Icebergfinder.com’s high-tech visualizations are not intended for sight-seers, but rather for the oil companies who maintain offshore drilling platforms in the Labrador Sea. As the maritime history of the RMS Titanic reveals, icebergs wreak havoc with even the sturdiest man-made structures. Charting these behemoths helps oil companies avoid potentially dangerous collisions. According to stories told by local residents, lassoing and towing mountains of ice from the vulnerable path of oil rigs in not uncommon.
The variety of types and shapes of ice formations were well noted by Noble and Church who assigned them names: The Alpine Berg, The Great Castle Berg, The Rip van Winkle Berg, The Iceberg of the Figurehead. One was as huge as England’s Windsor Castle and another higher than and as wide as the dramatic bend of Niagara Falls. Forced to sketch quickly, the artist faced extreme cold and fast moving weather systems bringing rain and fog that vexingly obscured their view. Rocky seas added an element of danger when the artist commanded the crew to navigate closely for the best vista. As Noble admitted:
An iceberg is an object most difficult to study, for which many facilities, much time and some danger are indispensable. The voyager passing at a safe distance, really knows little or nothing of one. (p. 100).
Warnings passed down through local lore flowed with stories of exploding and capsizing icebergs. The author registers a sigh of relief each time the captain signals the return to a sheltered cove. On one occasion, the two companions enjoyed the sounds and sights of a collapsing berg from a safe distance. The painter, known throughout the book merely as C—, contributed a sketch of this astonishing event to Noble’s book.
Jyoti, my partner and traveling companion who is also an artist, and I visited the key sites of Noble and Church’s journey using a network of roads that did not exist in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1859. We boarded a six-hour ferry from Nova Scotia to access this Viking Island, where Norsemen erected the first European settlement in North America five hundred years before Christopher Columbus landed in 1492. After exploring their misty, wind-swept archaeological site at L’Anse aux Meadows, a United Nations World Heritage site (UNESO) on the northern tip of the island, we hopped on a two-hour ferry across the Strait of Belle Isle to Labrador, located on the continental mainland near the border with Québec. From the terminal, we drove a fifty-three mile paved road along the coast to Red Bay, where sixteenth-century Basque settlers slaughtered and processed 20,000 right and bowhead whales for oil in a brief fifty years.
From Red Bay the road degenerates into a rough, pot-holed gravel byway that snakes through vast, stretches of tundra-like terrain pocked by freshwater ponds and lakes. It swings north to end in Cartwright, the jumping off point for explorations of northern Labrador’s extreme landscape and abundant wildlife. We exited at Mary’s Harbor, after driving another 53 miles, to catch a small boat, coincidentally anointed the Iceberg Hunter, to Battle Harbour. Plying the same deep, indigo-colored waters described by Noble, we reached Church’s sentry for hunting icebergs in about an hour and a half (fig. 3).
Fig. 3 Road Trip to Newfoundland and Labrador, 2008
Church and Noble arrived at their destination by sea, first boarding a steamer in Boston for Halifax, Nova Scotia, and then northeast on a smaller vessel to St Johns, the provincial capital of Newfoundland. A letter of introduction to Governor Alexander Bannerman insured that British soldiers, strategically positioned on top of Signal Hill, would not only alert the esteemed artist to the presence of icebergs, but would lend a boat for chasing them down. Although the men admired the beautiful harbor of St. Johns and tracked a formation or two, Noble complained: “Icebergs were too few for the requisite variety; too scattered to be reached conveniently; and too distant to be minutely examined by land. One needed to be in the midst of them, where he could command views, near or remote, of all sides of them, at all hours of the day and evening.” Consequently, Church decided to hire his personal 65-ton schooner, the Integrity, along with its captain and crew, to sail the open and sometimes perilous seas to Battle Harbour.
Battle Island is a rocky ledge of land one-half-mile long and one-quarter-mile wide separated from its larger neighbor, The Great Cariboo Island, by a narrow body of water called a “tickle.” The harbor, described by Noble as “a most romantic nook of water,” is squeezed between these molten-lava islands that form part of the northern terminus of the ancient Appalachian Mountains (fig. 4.)
Fig. 4 Battle Harbour “Tickle,” Labrador. Photo: Barbara Matilsky
A century and a half ago, the island was the booming, de facto capital of Labrador. The surrounding waters teamed with seal and cod, which was harvested, salted, and dried on platforms, known as flakes. A barter economy flourished under the auspices of John Slade and Company of Poole, Dorset, England, who established a commercial venture in the last quarter of the 18th century. Fishermen could exchange fish for supplies related to the trade. By the time of Church and Noble’s visit, more than 200 people lived permanently on tiny Battle Island. It is hard to imagine how dozens of schooners anchored here; but two albumen photographs from Church’s estate, dated 1860 by an unknown photographer, presents a sepia-toned portrait of the wooden buildings, active fishing flakes, and more than fifty boats moored in the narrow harbor (figs. 5 & 6).
Fig. 5 Unknown photogapher, Battle Harbour, c. 1860, albumen print, 5 3/4 x 8 5/8 in., Olana. 1981.331.2. Photo from: Thomas Weston Fels, Fire and Ice, 2002.
Fig. 6 Unknown photogapher, Battle
Harbour, c. 1860, albumen print,
6 3/8 x 8 1/4 in., Olana. 1981.331.1.
Photo from: Thomas Weston Fels, Fire and Ice, 2002
Arriving after a junket through a maze of deserted inlets, our Iceberg Hunter was the lone boat in Battle Harbour’s tickle. An eerie calm and isolation descended. The sun, blanketing the panoramic landscape in shades of blue, warmed the gusting winds. Mike Earle, the curator at the Battle Harbor Historic Trust, arranged for the deposit of our bags at the Battle Harbor Inn (fig. 4). Later, he introduced a handful of intrepid travelers to the history of this once-thriving fishing community through a tour of several buildings that now function as a museum (figs. 7-9). The highest structure on the island, the Marconi tower, is linked to the public fascination with the Arctic of another era. In 1909, the announcement of Robert Peary’s first steps on the North Pole emanated through the airwaves here and the explorer staged his first news conference in the attic of a warehouse now open to visitors.
Fig. 7 Battle Island, Labrador. Photo: Barbara Matilsky
The warehouses, dating from the eighteenth-century, have been reconstructed from the original timbers preserved by the salt stored within (fig. 8). Some of the clapboard dwellings, picturesquely nestled at the base of igneous rock estimated by Noble to be two hundred and fifty feet high, are privately owned and occupied part of the year by families who trace their ancestry back to 18th century England. An impressive group of buildings, including the warehouses, an Anglican church, the Battle Harbor Inn, and four cottages available as bed-and-breakfast accommodations for travelers, have been restored by the Trust. In 1992 when the Canadian government issued a moratorium on inshore cod fishing, concerned residents founded this private organization to acquire properties. It was the first step towards reclaiming the island’s history after fishing became unsustainable and the government began relocating families to the mainland in 1967.
Fig. 8 Battle Harbour. Photo: Barbara Matilsky
Fig. 9 Battle Harbour. Photo: Barbara Matilsky
Battle Harbour’s buildings can only suggest the booming activity that Church encountered on this dot of an island. Watching whales spouting in the distance, it is easy to forget that in 1859, the place was crowded, smelly, and polluted with the waste generated by the hundreds of people who serviced the fishing industry. This dim vision of a bustling time contrasts sharply with the softer footprint of the limited number of tourists who visit, the handful of staff catering to them, and the small, seasonal population of residents committed to the historic preservation of the island.
Today most people make the pilgrimage to Battle Harbour to experience the beauty and solitude of a pristine maritime environment and for the sight of an occasional iceberg. Upon arrival, we were thrilled by a relatively small piece of ice, called a “bergy bit,” trapped in a cauldron of water along the rocky shore. We watched it drift, change shape, and dissolve over the course of our two-day sojourn.
Icebergs were once plentiful in this area. Noble counted “forty in the neighborhood and some of them grand and imposing at a distance.” Using Battle Harbor as their base, the two men took excursions out to sea to study, paint, and exult in the multidimensional qualities of these ephemeral formations:
“Emphatically as they speak to the naturalist with his various instrumentalities, they speak, at the moment, with marvelous eloquence to the poet and the painter. There are forces, motions, and forms, voices, beauties, and a sentiment, which escape the touch of science, and scarcely caught by the subtle, poetic mind. Icebergs, to the imaginative soul, have a kind of individuality and life. They startle, frighten, awe; they astonish, excite, amuse, delight and fascinate; clouds, mountains and structures, angels, demons, animals and men spring to the view of the beholder. They are a favorite playground of the lines, surfaces and shapes of the whole world, the heavens above, the earth and the waters under: of their sounds, motions and colors also. These are the poet’s and the painter’s fields, more than they are the fields of the mere naturalist, much as they are his. (pp. 244-245)“
Given the right conditions, Church would work for up to two hours on a sketch (fig. 10). He balanced a “broad box upon his knees, making his easel of the lid” and “dashing in the colors.” When complete, the artist would call to the oarsmen to scout another angle or side of the iceberg. Each vantage point offered yet another revelatory picture. Depending upon an iceberg’s shape, it could recall the wonders of architecture – mosques, cathedrals, the Parthenon, castles. Often it embodied all of nature’s magnificent features rolled into one: “peaks and slopes; cliffs, crags, chasms and caverns; lakes, streams and waterfalls.” And the colors kept changing according to the position of the sun and atmospheric conditions: purples, blues, emeralds, a veritable jewel box of tints and tones.
Fig. 10 Frederic Edwin Church, Iceberg, Newfoundland, 1859, brush and oil paint on paperboard, Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Gift of Louis P. Church, Inv. No. 1917-4-296c. Photo: www.cooperhewitt.org
We were constantly hunting for icebergs along the horizon, peering into our binoculars at one huge castle berg wedged into a cliff off Lewis Bay. What happened to all of the icebergs? We learned from Diane Poole, an employee of the Battle Harbour Heritage Trust and descendant of the founding family of the mercantile industry, that this season was the best in three years. We were lucky to see our “bergy bit,” remnants of a massive iceberg marooned and battered for over a month off the island. As a child, Diane recalled when the waters were clogged with icebergs and fisherman regarded them as nuisances for tearing their nets. She also mentioned that climate change had transformed communities since residents no longer migrated seasonally inland. Most people depend on the tourism associated with iceberg watching as well as the limited fishing rights regulated by the Canadian government for survival.
Fig. 11 Wildflowers, Battle Island.
Photo: Barbara Matilsky
Fig. 12 Wildflowers, Battle Island.
Photo: Barbara Matilsky
Along with icebergs, Battle Island’s plant life enchants visitors. Hiking to the island’s summit, we walked across spongy mosses and clinging shrubs while mindfully skirting the alpine wildflowers nursed by mineral-rich rocks (figs. 11 & 12). This very same ecosystem seduced the senses of Church and Noble who wrote:
A bright, cool morning . . . we went rambling again up and down the moss-covered fields of Battle Island, smelling the fine perfume, gathering flowers, and counting the icebergs. . . I have never seen such fairy loveliness as I find here upon this bleak islet, where nature seems to have been playing Switzerland… The painter, passionately in love with the flowers of the tropics, lay down and rolled upon these soft, sweet beds of beauty with delight. Little gorges and chasms, overhung with miniature precipices, wind gracefully from the summits down to meet the waves, and are filled, where the sun can warm them, with all bloom and sweetness, a kind of wild greenhouse. (pp. 162-163).
Fig. 13 Battle Island with Marconi Tower. Photo: Barbara Matilsky
From a rugged promontory, we surveyed the magical, indigo-hued pools of water trapped by the island’s granite, the contours of distant coastlines silhouetted by the intermingling blues of sky and sea, and islets pounded by waves (figs.13 & 14). Church recorded a similar view in pencil with annotations: Battle Harbor hill overlooking Lewis Bay-Labrador July 7th/59. Elevated pond of fresh water – reflects the sky like gold. Bay bluish/ sky with faint streaks of gold. Mountains deep but delicate.
Fig. 14 Battle Island with “bergy bit” iceberg in the distance. Photo: Barbara Matilsky
The desire to wrap ourselves in another day of blissful seclusion was irresistible, but we remained determined to track down a large iceberg before the end of our expedition. Reversing course, we made our way to Twillingate, Newfoundland, where the itineraries of two journeys, one hundred and fifty years apart, coincidentally converged on Independence Day. Both sets of travelers were awed by spectacular icebergs in this magically-sounding town. Noble devoted several pages to the hunt of the Iceberg at Twillingate:
Twelve o’clock. The day we celebrate. Three cheers! Now we are after the iceberg… What an exquisite specimen of nature’s handiwork it looks to be, in the blaze of noon. It shines like polished silver dripping with dews. The painter is all ready with his colors, having sketched the outlines with lead. The water streams down in all directions in little rills and falls, glistening in the light like molten glass. Veins of gem-like transparency, blue as sapphire, obliquely cross the opaque white of the prodigious mass, the precious beauty of which no language can picture… Prongs and reefs of ice jutting from the body of the berg below, and over which we pass, give the water that emerald clearness so lovely to the eye, and open to the view something like the fanciful sea-green caves… Its water- line, under which the waves disappear in a lengthy, piazza-like cavern, with explosive sounds, is certainly a remarkable feature.” (pp. 106-108).
Fig. 15 Frederic Edwin Church, Floating Icebergs Near Twillingate, Newfoundland, July 4, 1859, brush and oil, graphic, on thin cream paperboard, 12 1/16 x 20 1/8 in., Smithsonian Cooper Hewitt, National Design Museum, Gift of Louis P. Church, Inv. No. 1917-4-294-b. Photo: www.cooperhewitt.org
Church’s Twillingate sketch presents several features that inspired The Icebergs: the vertical, sapphire-blue fissure along one face, the cavern, and the floating debris of ice “blasted off” from the mother berg during a “recent gale” (fig. 15). On a single board, the artist grouped three separate sketches. A massive chunk of ice dominates, but the artist reserved room at the bottom for two extremes of scale: the iceberg from a distant perspective and an eroded piece of ice close-up. The thicker, impressionistic brushstrokes bringing this small berg, classified by scientists as a “growler,” to life also suggest its inevitable dissolution by lapping waves. Church shrouds the main sketch in a dark, expressively painted sky that had earlier unleashed a stormy siege upon the berg, now spot lit by an emergent noon-time sun.
We hunted down our “4th of July Iceberg” by automobile. Coming into town, there it loomed in a sheltered cove behind a crenellated cliff. Only the tip was tantalizingly visible and we couldn’t figure out how to reach it. “Take the dirt road to the dump,” a resident working in his yard advised. Who would have suspected that our magnificent iceberg lay opposite a smoke-belching incinerator for the town of Twillingate! A greater contrast of nature and culture could not have been imagined.
The berg, compacted with snow thousands of years old, was perspiring before our eyes, melting into rivulets that cascaded down the slope of ice. A long ledge of miniature waterfalls marked a square base from which three abstract shapes had been carved by wind, water, and sun. This tripartite composition evoked the abstracted figural ensembles of the modernist sculptor, Henry Moore. We scrambled to the top of a precipice indented with a rocky trail to access its multiple viewpoints. How fitting that Noble often compared icebergs to marble statues and dedicated After Icebergs with a Painter to the neoclassical sculptor, Erastus Dow Palmer. Suddenly, we were startled by the sound of ice reverberating like a cannon, true to Noble’s description. Another C-R-A-C-K and shards of ice floated away.
Fig. 16 Fourth of July Iceberg, 2008, Twillingate, Newfoundland. Photo: Barbara Matilsky
Other tourists and townspeople arrived to witness the spectacle. An impromptu parking lot assembled around the dump. We observed the iceberg for a few hours beginning at 11 am, and later returned for a late afternoon sunlight display. Sunset was Church’s favorite time when icebergs reflected glowing colors that warmed profiles into high relief. A large number of sketches and all but one of his four oil paintings of icebergs are veiled in golden rays.
The Icebergs was exhibited to the public on April 27,1861, fifteen days after the advent of the Civil War, which overshadowed its New York premiere. Sympathetic to the Union cause, Church originally titled his painting, The North, and advertised that viewer admission charges would aid the families of soldiers through a donation to the Patriotic Fund. Favorably reviewed by the press, the painting failed to fetch its $10,000 asking price, a victim of the toughening war-time economy.
In pursuit of a collector, Church exhibited his painting in Boston and shipped it to London a year later. Always the astute businessman, Church renamed his painting, The Icebergs, recognizing that British public opinion favored the Confederacy. The artist made a more significant change by adding a ship’s mast to the foreground, a symbolic nod to the sailors and explorers who perished in the frozen North, in particular, the most famous expedition leader, Sir John Franklin, whose widow attended the exhibition’s opening reception.
The painting finally sold to an English industrialist, Sir Edward Watkins, who displayed it in his country house, Rose Hill. After his heirs passed away, the house was converted by the City of Manchester to a school for wayward boys during the 1920s. The Icebergs hung in a stairwell while art historians presumed it missing. They had lost track of the painting, which was known only by a color lithographic reproduction approved by the artist for sale. Resurfacing in 1979, The Icebergs was auctioned at Sotheby’s for the fantastic sum of 2.5 million dollars to an anonymous collector, who donated it to the Dallas Museum of Art..
Although the history of The Icebergs continues to fascinate, more revealing is the artist’s statement, or broadside as it was called at the time, which accompanied the painting at its New York debut. This one-page document, divided into eight sections, describes the work’s various aspects: The Form of the Iceberg; Motion of the Iceberg; Surface of the Iceberg; Colors of the Iceberg; The Sea; The Sky; Expression of the Scene. Implicit in the work and text is the concept of time. Traveling great distances, this iceberg is a specimen of transformation captured by Church at a particularly dramatic moment when the late afternoon sun reveals sapphire and emerald hues. The artist explains the blue and green colors as: “simply clear, transparent ice, formed in the cracks of the glacier. All the dark blues are only white ice under shadows. The green ice, as in the arch, is only green by reflection of the green water.” The erosion of ice formations, caused by waves and heat, is duly noted and masterfully painted.
The painting and broadside together read as a treatise on the natural history of icebergs, which helps account for the unusual composition. Church situates the viewer in a vast amphitheater of ice, sheltered by a cove whose outlet to the sea can be glimpsed in the distance. The horizon, defined by a flotilla of icebergs, augments the mood of isolation and expands the space ad infinitum. Measuring over five feet high by nine feet wide, this heroic landscape invites immersion into a strange and magical environment. The eroding boulder precariously balanced at the cavern’s edge, provides the only suggestion of solid earth, a reference perhaps to the slice of land from which it emerged.
Much has been written about Church’s admiration for the writings of the celebrated nineteenth century natural historian, Alexander von Humboldt, whose five-volume Kosmos (1847-1853) Church owned. It catalyzed Church’s first two journeys to the tropics of South America in 1853 and 1857 when the artist traced the path of the naturalist to the Andes. In his text, Humboldt extolled the natural harmony and unity of life, suggesting that artists paint panoramas depicting the planet’s varied landscapes. The Icebergs is an ecological pendant to the torrid southern hemisphere epitomized by The Heart of the Andes (fig. 17).
Fig 17 Frederic Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859, oil on canvas,
66 1/8 x 119 1/4 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Bequest of Margaret E. Dows, 1909 (09.95). Photo: www.metmuseum.org
Ultimately, it is the compelling visual spectacle of the iceberg that engages Church. He writes towards the end of the broadside: “All things favoring, an iceberg, in itself alone, is a miracle of beauty and grandeur.” Without the top of the ship’s mast as originally conceived and displayed in New York and Boston, Church presents the viewer with a vicarious experience of the Arctic unmitigated by potentially hazardous consequences. The aura of sublimity descends, and viewers, who stand directly on frozen ground, measure their puny selves against an iceberg that becomes a microcosm of the earth’s features: mountains, plateaus, cliffs, caves, and waterfalls.
Although Church painted The Icebergs with naturalistic finesse, its composition is purely imaginary. The artist created a composite of several different views, none based on surviving sketches. The painting, described in the broadside as one gigantic berg, demonstrates how Church thoroughly assimilated his observations of icebergs while painting en plein air. A handful of compositional studies, painted in the studio after his expedition, forecast some fundamental organizational features of The Icebergs. The artist’s interpretation of unstable, melting forms as bulwarks of solidity placed within a phantasmagorical framework portends the construction of the final tour de force of his life, a 250-acre Moorish estate near Hudson, New York (fig 18).
Inspired by a trip in 1867 to the Middle East, Church hired Calvert Vaux, one of the architects of New York’s Central Park, to lay out plans for the house. The artist named it Olana after an ancient Persian fortress. Deeply engaged in the planning process, he designed all interior ornament and several pieces of furniture, which, along with a cornucopia of objects, define the house’s Victorian eclecticism. Church devoted the final two decades of his life to his architectural fantasy as arthritis gripped his fingers and the emergence of a new style in art, called Impressionism, rendered his landscapes passé. The public now embraced artists like Childe Hassam and Maurice Prendergast who painted the pleasures of urban life in broad brushstrokes and high-key colors.
Commanding a dramatic view of the Hudson River, the site brought the geographic trajectory of the artist’s career full circle. Directly across the river, Church had painted some of his first landscapes at the home and studio of his mentor, Thomas Cole. Both Church and Cole’s homes, National Historic Landmarks and Sites, are open to the public. At the end of our journey, we unexpectedly found our way to their doorsteps, thanks to a construction detour further north that forced a change of itinerary. We toured the house, which contains a handful of important paintings, admired the scenery, and lit incense in memory of Church’s devotion to art and nature. Paying homage to the master of The Icebergs at Olana capped a remarkable trip.
Barbara Matilsky & Jyoti Duwadi, 2008
Fig. 18 Olana, Hudson, New York. Photo: Barbara Matilsky
Carr, Gerald L. Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 1980.
Fels, Thomas Weston. Fire and Ice: Treasures from the Photographic Collection of Frederic Church at Olana. New York: Dahesh Museum of Art and Cornell University Press, 2002.
Harvey, Eleanor Jones. The Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church’s Arctic Masterpiece. Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002.
Howat, John K. Frederic Church. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.
Noble, Louis Legrand. After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Around Newfoundland. New York and London: D. Appleton and Company, 1861. Reprint New York: Olana Galleries, 1979.
Top banner image: Fredrick Edwin Church, Icebergs and Wreck in Sunset, 1860, oil on paperboard mounted on canvas, 8 1/4 x 12 1/4 in., private collection