The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

2. Frederic Edwin Church and Italy

GERALD L. CARR

We do not usually associate Frederic Church with Italy. One reason for the omission is the fact that Church's best- known and best-appreciated works are landscapes of the Western hemisphere. Art historians and connoisseurs alike still tend to rank his paintings of Mediterranean subjects, which he began producing in earnest during the late 1860s while on tour in the Near East and Europe, on a lesser level than his scenes of the New World. 1 Another reason, as David Huntington pointed out thirty years ago, is that Church himself responded unenthusiastically to ancient Roman ruins in Italy, to the modern city of Rome, and to modern Italian art during his only stay in the Eternal City, between October 1868 and May 1869. 2 While in Rome, he painted only two extant oil studies of architectural antiquities (see below), and he seldom ventured into the countryside, the Campagna, to sketch 3--despite the fact that, a few months earlier, he had marveled at architectural remnants of imperial Rome he saw in the Near East. The most noteworthy groups of his sketches and of photographs he purchased of an Italian site other than Rome were of the Greek temples at Paestum, where he stopped on his way to Athens from Rome in April 1869. 4 Having looked forward to his trip to Greece for months, he was spellbound by the ruins of Athens, in particular those of the Parthenon, which he vastly preferred to any he observed in Roman Italy. His preferences in that regard ultimately are reflected in his oeuvre of paintings of Italian subjects, which comprises approximately fifteen known oil studies and, at most, only a handful of studio works.

Yet in the long run as well as the short term, it is safe to say that Church's Italian interlude was of considerable significance for him. During his stay in Rome, easily the longest residency of his Old World travels of 1867-1869, Church was welcomed as a leading member of the city's cultural community, and he engaged in a variety of useful activities. After he returned to the United States, his experiences in Italy remained an integral part of his thinking as an artist. In the perspective of his career as a whole, those experiences were indicative of a turning point in his art, and of what could be called his outlook on life in general.

Church ought to have been well-primed and favorably disposed toward Italy. Thomas Cole, with whom he studied in Catskill, New York, between June 1844 and June 1846, was enamored of Italy and Italian scenery. Having concluded his own second tour of Italy in mid-1842, over the next few years Cole painted and exhibited several canvases of Italian subjects as well as ones of North American and of historical themes, much as he had done in the mid-1830s following his first trip abroad. Among the newer works was Mount Aetna from Taormina, Sicily ( 1843; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford), an immense canvas completed in five days, and a highlight of the inaugural exhibition, held in mid-1844, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut, Church's home town. 5 Incidentally, Cole's image was later adapted as a logo for the Aetna Life Insurance Company of Hartford, of which Joseph Church, Frederic's father, had been a director. 6 In a pair of smaller, companion works also of 1843, Cole contrasted Claudian aqueducts extending across the Campagna as far as the eye could see in The Roman Campagna (Wadsworth Atheneum) with a fanciful, prodigious natural arch in Evening in Arcady (Wadsworth Atheneum)--the latter, in effect, a Piranesian Roman ruin translated into geology.

Add to these factors Cole's unquenchable penchant to speak and write about every fact of his art,

-23-

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