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Frederic Edwin Church

Charles Loring Elliot, Frederic Edwin Church, 1866, oil on canvas, 34 x 27 inches (86.4 x 68.6 cm), New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Olana State Historic Site, Taconic Region. 1981.4

Frederic Edwin Church, Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636, 1846, oil on canvas, 40 1/4 x 60 3/16 in. (102.2 x 152.9 cm). Photo courtesy of the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

Frederic Edwin Church was born in Hartford, Connecticut on May 4, 1826. A central figure of the Hudson River School of American painters, he is best known for his large, panoramic landscapes often showing mountains, waterfalls, and sunsets. Church was born into a wealthy Protestant family and was the only son of Joseph and Eliza Church. His father was extremely successful in business as a silversmith and jeweler and served as director at several financial firms. The family's wealth therefore allowed Church to pursue his interest in art from an early age.

Church had always shown a talent for drawing, and by the age of sixteen, he was studying drawing and painting in earnest. Two years later he became the first apprentice of English-born American landscape painter Thomas Cole (1801-1848) with the help of Daniel Wadsworth (1771-1848), a family neighbor, prominent collector and founder of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford. Church would study with Cole for only two years, from 1842 to 1844, yet that time would prove deeply informative for the rest of Church’s career. Likewise, Wadsworth had played a formative role in Church’s life and was among the very first to recognize his exceptional talent. This launched Church on an impressive career that would see him become the most celebrated and financially fruitful artist in America. Within a year after ending his time with Cole, Church had been shown in the National Academy of Design’s annual exhibition, and the following year he sold his first major oil painting, titled Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford, in 1636—a pastoral landscape depicting Hooker’s journey to the Hartford’s Wadworth Atheneum in 1846. 

Extraordinarily gifted as an artist and a colorist, Church reached his early maturity by 1848 and by the early 1850’s began producing prominent canvases that spoke to the great tensions and historical crisis of the Civil War. In the year 1860, Church bought farmland at Hudson, New York, and married Isabel Carnes, whom he had met during the exhibition of his Heart of the Andes in 1859. His marriage to both his wife and his farm became the joint center of his life, in later years tending to divert his attentions from painting major canvases. 

In 1869, Church acquired a plot of land and began designing a home for him and his wife which would later be known Olana, an estate that still stands overlooking the Hudson River. Church’s work began to decrease in popularity towards the end of life, although he continued to paint throughout his later years. He continued to live at Olana until his death. 

Frederic Edwin Church passed away at the age of 73 on April 7, 1900 in New York, NY. 

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