Grand Views of a Lost `Eden'

Frederic Church's panoramic oils capture the vistas that awed 19th-century travelers

IF the National Gallery were presenting the mega-landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church in true Church style, the viewer would get a whopping bill on leaving the exhibition. When Church's two greatest paintings, the monumental ``Niagara'' and the later ``Heart of the Andes,'' went on public view, the artist showed them like plays on Broadway, charging admission. In the catalog for the exhibition now at the National Gallery, one visitor's account tells of trudging down Broadway in November, 1859, to find ``this celebrated picture,'' which could be seen in a special studio by daylight or gaslight. Church had installed a till where thousands dropped in their quarter admission charge to sit on benches arranged as at a theater, with ``Heart of the Andes'' hanging where the stage should be.

His foaming ``Niagara,'' the picture that made Church the most famous painter in mid-19th century America, had earlier been shown as a one-picture special exhibition at a commercial gallery for the same admission price, with Church getting a percentage of the take.

Now the National Gallery has brought together an unprecedented exhibition that duplicates some of Church's own installations. The exhibition includes 49 of his paintings, among them Church's largest and most famous paintings from the late 1850s, '60s and '70s. Besides ``Niagara'' and ``Heart of the Andes,'' they include ``The Icebergs,'' ``Cotopaxi,'' ``Aurora Borealis,'' ``Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives,'' and ``Morning in the Tropics.''

``We've got every one of the greats,'' boasts National Gallery director J. Carter Brown. ``It's never happened before. They've never all been together before, not even in Church's lifetime. It is a cause for celebration.''

This is the first Church show in a generation. But, although Church might wince, there isn't even a ``suggested donation'' sign at the door. The gallery has a longstanding free-admission policy. There is not even a corporate sponsor for this intrinsically American show by an artist who painted everything ``from the mountains to the prairies to the ocean white with foam'' before setting off to explore other parts of the world - South America, Newfoundland, Labrador, Jamaica, Europe, the Near East.

The impact of these magnficent landscapes is almost physical - the sort of deep intake of amazed breath you might experience at the edge of the Grand Canyon, on the Irish cliffs of Mohr, or sighting the aurora borealis. In fact, Church has painted an ``Aurora Borealis'' that resembles some dark, vibrating rainbow.

Church, whose paintings symbolize the belief in the ``manifest destiny'' of America, was a sort of recording angel for a now-lost Eden.

Kelly sums up the significance of the show and Church's work: ``If we can today look at these great works, which are still, I think, capable of entrancing us with their sheer beauty and technical wonder, if we can ... feel some of the 1850s and '60s sense of awe..., I think we'll have made an enormous step [toward] understanding the ... greatest American landscape painter of the 19th century.''

Facing the viewer at the end of the last room in the show is ``Niagara Falls from the American Side,'' which sluices down one whole wall. You almost have to brush the spray from your face, this Niagara is so real. Below it are salmon-colored rocks in the sun and the edge of a rainbow. This ``Niagara'' is not the one that won Church fame in 1857; that was another awesome painting done 10 years later, which wasn't seen in this country until the National Gallery of Scotland lent it for this exhibition.

In the last two rooms of this beautifully mounted exhibition, Gil Ravenel of the museum's installation-and-design staff has hung some of Church's huge jewels in perfect settings. Each painting rules over nearly one whole wall. The setting is reminiscent of the Near-East look of Olana, the Victorian mansion high above the Hudson which became Church's last great work of art. It is now the museum for his collections.

The centerpiece of the show is an installation for ``Heart of the Andes'' in a nearby alcove that is an hommage to Church's own display; it is mounted in a room by itself, complete with a structure recalling the original walnut framing effect of a window on the Andes.

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