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From Selections from the American Collection if the Museum and Fine Arts ad the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum

 

 

New England Scenery

New England Scenery

New England Scenery, Frederic Edwin Church, 1851, oil on canvas. (courtesy Springfield Library and Museums)

This ambitious picture, which serves as a symbol for all of New England, may be considered Church’s first cosmic landscape. The cosmic landscape, a picture of varied scenes assembled on one canvas to represent an entire region, was popularized by the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt. In his book, Cosmos, which was widely circulated in America at mid-century, Humboldt advised painters to combine naturalistic features of a region according to the principles of classical landscape composition. Church would have been familiar with the art of landscape composition through his teacher, Thomas Cole. In fact, as Franklin Kelly has pointed out, New England Scenery bears a striking resemblance to Cole’s Pastoral State (The New York Historical Society, New York, N. Y.), the second painting in his Course of Empire series. Both pictures are organized according to the same compositional elements: a large mountain in the background, a valley which cradles a lake in the middle ground, and a tree which frames the pictures’ right. The Stonehenge-like temple in Cole’s work has been replaced with a white steepled church, and the industry of boat-building has been transformed into a Maine sawmill.

     It was no accident that Church based his composition on Cole’s Pastoral State, the image of an empire flourishing in Arcadian harmony with nature. With New England Scenery, Church meant to reveal an ideal world. The bridge and road in the foreground indicate a system of transportation, the mill represents technology happily coexisting with the natural world, the cleared fields point to abundant agricultural development, and the church represents the importance of religion. Church has even replaced the classical peasants usually found in idyllic landscapes with hard-working, distinctly American farmers and laborers.

     A comparison between New England Scenery and the 1850 studio sketch for the picture (Lyman Allyn Art Museum, New London, Conn.), adds new meaning to the Springfield canvas. The paintings are closely related, but in the final version Church made two important changes. The sea in the sketch and its subsequent reference to Europe and the East was eliminated from the final scene, and the sketch’s horse-drawn cart was replaced by a Conestoga wagon, an important symbol of westward expansion. Both of these changes draw the viewer’s mind away from Europe and point to America’s dream of settling the West. Even the vastness of space represented in New England Scenery celebrates the sheer size of the North American landscape and the potential for the settlement and exploration of its uncharted regions. After his success with New England Scenery, Church turned his attention to painting the North American West and South America. In his subsequent cosmic landscapes, which occupied him for the rest of his life, the artist celebrated the grandeur and vastness of landscapes not yet tainted by the hands of industry.

From Selections from the American
Collection of the Museum of Fine Arts
and the George Walter Vincent Smith
Art Museum.
Paperback, $29.95

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