A number of the artists featured in the special exhibition Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School can also be found in the galleries of the Milwaukee Art Museum. This is the third in a series of blog posts that will highlight Milwaukee’s artworks during the run of the exhibition.
The first post in this series focused on Thomas Cole, the founder of the Hudson River School. Today we will highlight Cole’s one and only pupil, Fredrick Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900), as well as Church’s very good friend, Charles De Wolf Brownell (American, 1822-1909).
Church enjoyed success early in his career: he was apprenticed to Cole at 18 and then quickly became the youngest member of the National Academy of Design. For much of the 1850s, he travelled during the summer to far-flung places like South America, and only ended his excursions for a while when he married. In the late 1860s Church and his wife began to travel again, this time to Europe and the Middle East. Eventually, health issues forced Church to settle down at Olana, his Hudson River mansion, where he lived until his death in 1900.
Inspired by German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), and his friendship with Church, Brownell almost never stopped moving. For the better part of the 1850s and into the 1860s he spent his winters in Cuba, where his mother’s family owned sugar plantations, even publishing his own natural history on the Caribbean. In 1865, Brownell married and moved to Rhode Island to set up a permanent home, but he continued to travel. He visited Europe extensively during the 1870s with his wife and children, and he later went on many solo expeditions to the Caribbean, South America, Mexico and the American Southwest. He even went on a cruise around the world in 1897. His travels finally ended with his death in 1909.
The two landscape painters met in New York after Brownell abandoned his career as a lawyer, and became life-long friends. The Milwaukee Art Museum offers a chance to compare side by side a painting by Church (A Passing Shower, above) and a painting by Brownell (The Bay of Matanzas, Cuba, below); both of these paintings were made in 1860.
Despite its title, Church’s A Passing Shower actually shows the dissipation of a dawn mist at sunrise. As the fog lifts we can see the emerging, distant mountains. Nestled at the foot of the hills is a small cabin in the forest. In the foreground, a man guides a boat down the river, while cattle graze along its bank. But overall, this evidence of human existence is overwhelmed by the vastness of the landscape.
The Bay of Matanzas, on the other hand, reflects a more established town set within an expansive landscape. Many buildings fill the foreground, while ships float in the bay, and cultivated fields are worked in the distance. Although there is clear evidence of human cultivation of the landscape, the scene is sparsely populated.
One similarity between Church and Brownell is their fascination with the details of the natural world. Church often strived for scientific accuracy in his depictions of plants. At the time he painted A Passing Shower, Church most often created both large scale paintings, some reaching 10 feet wide, as well as others that possessed a high level of detail, such as his depiction of the Ecuadorian volcano, Cayambe, on view in Nature and the American Vision. We can see Brownell’s same desire for detail in Bay of Matanzas, Cuba, especially in the palm trees in the foreground.
As we discussed in the post on Thomas Cole, many Hudson River School painters reflected the social and political issues of their time. Church and Brownell are no exception. Church created A Passing Shower as the United States was on the brink of civil war. Growing storms and fading sunsets were often used by artists as symbols of struggle; the dark mist contrasted with the growing light of the sunrise suggests the coming conflict between North and South. Church’s hope for a resolution in a peaceful future for the young country is reflected in the serene landscape in the foreground.
If we look at Brownell’s painting, we see no negative consequences of plantation life. Brownell depicted Cuba in a state of peace with clear blue sky and much of the landscape bathed in sunlight; the palm trees and expansive green fields suggest lush abundance. As mentioned above, Brownell knew firsthand the landscape of Cuba from his early travels, and his idealized view of a slave-based economy is very far from plantation life that was causing friction in the United States.
–Allison Barr, Curatorial Intern