A painter delights in a volcano

ARTISTS never cease to surprise me. Just when I think I have one neatly pegged, a new facet turns up. Frederic Edwin Church seems a typical example of a 19th-century American landscape painter. He learned his art at age 18 under the tutelage of Thomas Cole, the first master of the so-called Hudson River School. This should have alerted me to expect more than meets the eye in a Church canvas, because Cole was not only a superb landscapist but also a strongly romantic visionary painter. I knew, of course, that Church traveled extensively and that his views of the Andes were enormously popular when publicly exhibited. But other painters had made the journey to America of the south.

George Catlin continued his lifelong studies of the Indians, comparing those of the tropical jungles with the Mandan and other tribes of the Western plains. Martin Johnson Heade pursued his beloved hummingbirds and orchids to Brazil.

What amazed me was that Church became entranced by one volcano - Cotopaxi in Ecuador, a land of volcanoes. No subject seems further removed from the smooth stretches of the Hudson River, with its low rounded hill and mountain formations that gently channel the river's long flow.

In the 19th century, American landscape artists were travelers by necessity and by choice. Considering the rigors of travel at the time, the choice would have had to be an enthusiastic one. The necessity came about because patrons liked scenes of exotic landscapes as well as the familiar landmarks. Since the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains, Niagara Falls, and other areas were accessible without too strenuous exertions, they had been painted again and again by various Hudson River painters. It followed that some of the ``second generation'' would go farther afield to generate fresh interest in their work.

However, sailing to Ecuador and scaling the Cordilleras, which rise to more than 20,000 feet at the equator, seems above and beyond the call of art. Accounts of the trip record many difficulties. The altitude was enough to halt men and horses.

Church's eager interest in the budding natural sciences helped to draw him there.

The awakening call had been sounded by a world-class German scientist, Baron Alexander von Humboldt. His books, including ``Cosmos,'' were translated quickly into English and read in the still-raw republic wherever men and women considered themselves intellectually cultivated.

The cover of one of Humboldt's books featured an engraving of Cotopaxi's snowcapped cone. The name means ``shining mass.'' Humboldt wrote, ``The form of Cotopaxi is the most beautiful and regular of the colossal summits of the high Andes,'' and ``the most dreadful volcano of the kingdom of Quito, and its explosions are frequent and disastrous.'' The scientist expressed the hope that ``landscape painting will flourish with a new and hitherto unknown brilliancy when artists of merit'' discovered the tropics of South America.

Humboldt also espoused the ``new'' theory on which modern geology is based, that the study of present conditions shows us the past and that volcanoes hold the key to the formation of mountains. On a more visionary plane, he held that the South American landscape must be close to that of the dawn of creation, linked in 19th-century thought with the Garden of Eden.

So, in 1853, Church was eager to see that wonderful sight and, as he was already acknowledged a ``painter of merit,'' was ready to take up Humboldt's challenge.

He sailed with Cyrus W. Field. This choice of a traveling companion attests to his scientific bent, as Field later became famous for laying the first transatlantic telegraph cable.

During this trip, Cotopaxi was not the object of consuming interest that it later became. Certainly, it stood high on Church's tourist's list of scenic attractions. His journal notes a view of ``unparalleled magnificence,'' which he pronounced ``one of the great wonders of Nature,'' and in comparison, his ``feeble sketches.''

The beautiful canvas shown on this page was painted after his return. American landscape painters were never the dedicated plein air advocates the French were. The usual method was to make sketches in the field, and that might mean anything from a pencil drawing to a quickly painted full-color oil sketch. These would be worked into a finished painting in the studio. Topographic fidelity to the whole scene was not a large consideration.

The snowy white cone rises into a clear blue sky with a plume of white smoke or steam from its subterranean fires. The base of volcanic residue is gray-purple.

The cheerful red-tile-roofed, white washed hacienda at the lower right is settled in a pleasant landscape of yellow greens. The shadowed area on the left is again rugged, with glints of sunlight brightening sparse and wild foliage and rocks of various shades.

This painting was commissioned by Field. The cool coloration and the smooth brushing that link this painting to the Hudson River School were probably part of Field's expectation of what the canvas would look like. The hacienda may have been included as a memento of the cordial hospitality they received there as the base for their study of the volcano.

Four years later, Church returned to Cotopaxi. The volcano was still smoldering from an eruption. On this trip Church seems to have sketched his volcano from as many angles as C'ezanne would do with Ste. Victoire. But it was not the geometry of the mountain that interested Church but its geology. He studied everything about rock formations available at the time and made notes on his sketches.

After returning from his second expedition, he painted a great many canvases of Cotopaxi. A large one painted in 1862 differs strikingly from this one. The cool coloring changes to a ruddy sunrise, with smoke and ash issuing from the volcano. His contemporaries saw the painting as having moral implications for a nation engaged in an agonizing civil war. The destructive volcano was equated with war; the rising sun, with peace. The purgative imagery of the Apocalypse was referred to.

But not all Cotopaxi paintings started out on such a high plane. One commission specified tropical vegetation that posed a problem for the artist. He wrote to this patron, ``I don't know how I am to get palm trees and other rich vegetation into a picture of Cotopaxi ... the big mountain grimly secludes itself in an immense circle of volcanic and comparatively barren country.... I know that palms grow in a valley, Chota - 100 miles north. But although Cotopaxi is huge, 100 miles is quite an item of distance. However the mountain is a grand thing and I mean to please you with this picture if possible.''

As there are Cotopaxi paintings with palm trees, no doubt the collector was satisfied in his desire, and the artist managed to paint 100 miles of landscape between the palms and the mountain.

The last Cotopaxi painting was done in 1867. In that year Church took his family on an extended trip to Europe and the Middle East. There he found a new enthusiasm in Persian art. He came back to turn himself into an architect, a landscape designer working with trees, ponds, and walks rather than paint, and an interior decorator, in order to complete Olana, his eclectic and Persian-inspired home that forms a shining mass crowning the summit of a hill in the Catskills. A surprising man of surprising enthusiasms.

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