Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Frederick Edwin Church and the Christian Vision of America

Frederick Edwin Church (1826-1900) was a devout Trinitarian and Congregationalist. Ministers and theologians were among his closest friends throughout his life. For years a student of Thomas Cole, he left his tutelage in 1846 and established his own studio in Hartford where he heard the sermons of Horace Bushnell at North Congregational Church. In those years Church would have been exposed to the ideas of the young Christian Romantic minister that had just published Discourses on Christian Nurture. I will comment briefly on only one of his paintings.

Niagara (1857) is a monumental piece both in physical size and meaning. Painted at a time when America was transitioning from an agrarian to an industrialized economy, and when a new sense of nationalism was in search of an identifiable cultural icon, the significance of Church’s picture of Niagara Falls found a ready audience. While Niagara Falls had been painted many times, even by his mentor Cole, Church brought a fresh awareness to the mammoth waterfall. Not only is his picture overwhelmingly larger than any other (his serial panorama was intended to encourage the viewer to feel as a participant in the story), but also he reversed his point of orientation from the conventional American side looking toward Canada to a view from the Canadian rim looking towards the vast openness of the American frontier. In this way Church highlighted Niagara Falls as the new cultural icon of a growing, changing, and prosperous nation. Like Bushnell and Coleridge, Church saw the role of the artist as prophet and seer. To him, America is a chosen people of God. He used biblical metaphors to express his message.

Above the falls we see a rainbow (something Cole never painted) – the covenant sign of God’s blessing to Noah. Church wants us to see America in the very same sense: having endured hardship, God has now set his sign and seal of promise upon Americans and is calling them to thrive in the land of their sojourning. The metaphorical Christian imagery extends to the very use of water in its concealed affiliation with the Christian waters of baptism, a rite that is also tied biblically to the deluge. Also, Church follows the basic idea of Christian Romanticism that nature is symbolic of God: the power of the falls is meant to point us to the power of God and his protection of the American people, as long as they heed his voice and obey his commands.

Though Niagara was received as a new cultural icon of nationalism and industrialism, Church, like his teacher Cole, was wary of the implications of economic expansion for nature. The American novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) echoed this circumspection in The House of Seven Gables (1851):

What we call real estate – the solid ground to build a house on – is the broad foundation on which nearly all the guilt of this world rests.[1]

American novelist Herman Melville (1819-1891)[2] shared Hawthorne’s view, as seen in his masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851):

Hereby perhaps Stubb indirectly hinted that though man loved his fellow, yet man is a moneymaking animal, which propensity too often interferes with his benevolence.[3]

[1] Nathaniel Hawthorne, The House of Seven Gables, Chapter XVII, “The Flight of Two Owls.” ClassicAuthors.net
[2] His classic Moby Dick is about the search for truth and self-discovery in the midst of battling with one’s own demons. Both Melville and Hawthorne, as opposed to the Transcendentalists, focus on the more negative side of human nature. They combine realism, allegory, and moral issues.
[3] Herman Melville, Moby Dick, Chapter 93, “The Castaway.” American Literary Classics.

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