From Selections from the American Collection if the Museum and Fine Arts ad the George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum
New England Scenery
This ambitious picture, which serves as a symbol for all of New England, may be considered Churchs 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 Coles 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 Coles 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 Coles 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 sketchs
horse-drawn cart was replaced by a Conestoga wagon, an important symbol
of westward expansion. Both of these changes draw the viewers mind
away from Europe and point to Americas 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