Church’s distant travels largely defined his career and beginning in 1850, his wanderlust took him to places as widespread as the Arctic, the Middle East, Jamaica, South America, and to domestic locals such as Mount Desert, Maine, the Natural Bridge in Virginia, Mammouth Cave in Kentucky and Niagara Falls. Of all the places to which he traveled, it is his depictions of South America with which he is most associated and his dramatic and romantic renderings such as Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada fundamentally influenced the popular conception of the southern continent in the American and European imaginations, defining their vision of this distant region.
The catalyst for Church’s initial fascination with South America was Alexander von Humboldt’s Cosmos of 1845, which encouraged artists to travel to the continent and depict its tropical landscape (Fig. 1). This treatise ignited the artist’s imagination and inspired him to visit the continent twice, in 1853 and again in 1857. On these visits he trekked through Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Colombia making notes and sketches that would serve as source material for a number of major studio paintings. Church’s captivation with South America demonstrated the Victorian near obsession with the exotic and was shared by fellow artists Martin Johnson Heade and Louis Remy Mignot, who accompanied his 1857 trip. This deep interest in remote locales also reflected the greater movement of American artists responding to increasing industrialization by seeking to depict pristine landscapes unaltered by the hand of man. These idealized scenes celebrated the divine in nature and were meant to commemorate an earlier, more innocent time. Church and others traveled to South America in search of primeval terrain in the face of increasing development in the Northeast much as Thomas Cole and Sanford Robinson Gifford had trekked to Kaaterskill Falls and Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran ventured West in search of a new Eden.
When he wrote Cosmos, “Humboldt knew that several important artists had visited the tropics, [but] he felt that none had truly succeeded in conveying the full effect of the magnificent scenery…Church would take up this challenge with such vigor and determination that he would, in a few years, become known as ‘the very painter Humboldt so longs for in his writings’” (Franklin Kelly, et al., Frederic Edwin Church, Washington, D.C., 1989, p. 48). Church’s South American paintings were an immediate success commencing with their appearance at the National Academy of Design in 1855 and his subsequent unveiling of the grand-scale Heart of the Andes (Fig. 2, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) in 1859, which met with great praise and huge attendance when exhibited on both sides of the Atlantic.
By the time Church painted Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada in 1875, South America was being rapidly developed, experiencing the encroachment of railroads and others signs of modern industrialization. The present work relates to a series of tropical scenes Church painted in the late 1860s to mid-1870s including Sunset in the Tropics, 1868 (Fruitlands Museums, Harvard, Massachusetts), Tropical Scenery of 1873 (Brooklyn Museum of Art, Brooklyn, New York) and El Rio de Luz (The River of Light), 1877 (National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Gerald Carr writes that “Church clothed…his…tropical pictures of the 1870s in veils of nostalgia not only for personal reasons, among them that he had aged a generation since the 1850s, and for artistic ones, among them his lately developed respect for Old Masters and pressure from an American contemporary, Norton Bush (1834-1894). Church’s perspective had changed because equatorial America itself was changing” (In Search of the Promised Land: Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church, New York, 2000, pp. 71-72).
Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada is a superb example of Church’s tropical works from the period that makes no reference to the changing landscape of the region. Rather, he depicts an Edenic landscape suffused in warm light and imbued with tranquility – a scene of the tropical bucolic. He masterfully renders the atmosphere so as to convey the heat and humidity of the thick, tropical air radiating off the lush greenery. The scene is reverent to the power and scale of the landscape, which is underscored by the figures in the foreground that are dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape. This effect is further heightened by the cropping of the painting, the trees extending beyond the confines of the canvas.
Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada retains its original, Church designed frame allowing today’s viewer to experience the painting as the artist originally intended. The Moorish inspired frame demonstrates the influence of Church’s trip to the Middle East in the 1860s, which also provided significant source material for the construction of his estate on the Hudson River, Olana. The juxtaposition of these diverse influences further underscores the Victorian fascination with the distant and exotic as well as Church’s ability to synthesize various inspirations into his own inimitable style. “In short, Church managed to create works of both profound intellectual interest and compelling artistic beauty” (Frederic Edwin Church, Washington, D.C., 1989, p. 16).
Dr. Franklin Kelly writes of the continuing appeal and power of Church’s works such as Valley of Santa Isabel, New Granada, “his paintings are still undeniably capable of evoking thoughtful wonder about the mysteries of art and the complexities of the natural world and of providing delight and fascination” (Frederic Edwin Church, Washington, D.C., 1989, p. 16).
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