Lot 13
  • 13

Frederic Edwin Church 1826 - 1900

800,000 - 1,200,000 USD
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  • Frederic Edwin Church
  • Final Study for The Icebergs
  • oil on canvas laid down on masonite
  • 10 by 18 1/8 inches
  • (25.4 by 46 cm)
  • Painted in 1860.


By descent in the artist's family to his great-grandson (sold: Stalker and Boos, Birmingham, Michigan, January 19, 1980, lot 114, illustrated, also illustrated on the cover) 
Mr. and Mrs. B. Standart Aldridge, Lake Orion, Michigan (acquired from the above sale)
Middendorf Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Acquired by the present owner from the above, 1987


Dallas, Texas, Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, Frederic Church's 'The Icebergs,' September-December 1980
New York, Berry-Hill Galleries; Chicago, Illinois, Terra Museum of American Art, In Search of the Promised Land: Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church, April-October 2000, pp. 82, 192, illustrated in color p. 158, pl. 37


"Small 'Icebergs' brings $247,500," Dallas Morning News, January 20, 1980
Bill Marvel, "Small version of 'Icebergs' brings $247,500 at auction," January 22, 1980, Dallas Times Herald, p. 1, illustrated
"Exhibit joins 'Icebergs' with sketches, studies," Dallas Times Herald, September 21, 1980, pp. 1, 8-H 
Gerald L. Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: The Icebergs, Dallas, Texas, 1980, p. 71, illustrated fig. 43
Christian Viveros-Fauné, "The Promised Land," New York Press, May 2000
John Goodrich, "Frederic Edwin Church: In Search of the Promised Land," Reviewny: The Critical State of Visual Art in New York, June 1, 2000, p. 4 
Eleanor Jones Harvey and Gerald L. Carr, The Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Church's Arctic Masterpiece, New Haven, Connecticut and London, 2002, illustrated fig. 45


This work is mounted on masonite. The canvas displays some thinness, mostly in the sky. Under UV: there are some scattered retouches in the sky and in lower right quadrant. There is a 2-inch horizontal line of inpainting at center left. The painting has a thick layer of varnish, and would benefit from a light cleaning.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Frederic Church was Thomas Cole’s first and only student and his early mastery of landscape painting is a testament not only to his own unique talent as an artist, but also to the profound influence of his instructor. Church left his home in Hartford, Connecticut in 1844, at the age of eighteen, to study with Cole in Catskill, New York. He spent two years under his tutelage, receiving basic instruction in painting and composition. In addition, Cole instilled in his young student his belief that the landscape tradition could rival historical painting as the leading genre. Franklin Kelly writes, “In the years immediately following Cole's death there was considerable flux among New York painters and a general reassessment among critics and connoisseurs as to the proper direction of the [Hudson River] school. As pure landscapes gradually became more and more the vogue, many painters abandoned the high style Cole had struggled so hard to establish. Frederic Church, however, did not. With considerable creativity and intelligence he investigated ways in which Cole’s beliefs could be adapted to the new tastes of mid-century. In doing so, he embarked on the process that would lead to the creation of some of the most complex, profound, and meaningful landscapes of his era, works that truly represented the 'full fruition [of] the aspirations of his master'” (Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 21).

Stirred by the disappearance of Sir John Franklin's arctic exploration party in 1847 and the subsequent polar excursions of Elisha Kent Kane, the general public's interest in the northern regions was at a peak in the 1850s. As Gerald Carr writes, “…the Arctic was a mysterious, metamorphic, almost sentient region of the earth. Sparsely inhabited, largely unpenetrated, and legendarily dangerous, the Polar Regions enticed the unwary and wary as the Sirens had Homer’s Ulysses (Frederic Edwin Church, In Search of the Promised Land, New York, 2000, p. 77). Seeking a fresh adventure after a recent trip to South America, Church was absorbed by the prevailing public fascination with the lonely world of Newfoundland and southern Labrador. Henry Tuckerman writes, “When the idea of making icebergs the subject of a picture suggested itself to Mr. Church, it was but the unconscious response to the curiosity and wonder which arctic discovery had excited in the public mind. The pleasure which this artist’s delineation of tropical scenery had given his friends and all lovers of art here and in England, must have convinced him, if he was unaware of the fact before, that there is a latent love of nature in the multitude, and that her faithful and feeling representation gratifies popular instinct as well as amateur taste. Accordingly he desired, if possible, to make his canvas reflect the glint and gloom, the grandeur and beauty, the coldness and desolation of the north, as he had already caused it to flow with the exuberant loveliness of the south” (Book of the Artists: American Art Life, New York, 1867, pp. 380-81).

Church, accompanied by Reverend Louis Noble, Cole’s former pastor and biographer, traveled to Labrador and Newfoundland in June of 1859. Originally viewing the sights from aboard a commercial vessel, Church and Noble ultimately chartered a sixty-five-ton schooner and in some cases explored in even smaller vessels, allowing for closer inspection of the icebergs and enabling Church to produce detailed sketches and studies (Fig. 1). In reference to their fearlessness, John Howat writes, “…Church and Noble continued trying to place themselves almost inside the chasms of the glorious yet moody icebergs, puzzling over the forces of nature that could become such fearsome monuments” (Frederic Church, New Haven, Connecticut, 2005, pp. 95-6). While the two men struggled with seasickness, Church never missed an opportunity to furiously sketch each new natural wonder as Noble sought to write down every experience. Following Noble’s return to America, he published the book After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Around Newfoundland, which provided an enthusiastic account of the expedition, as well as several descriptions of Church’s individual observations and sketches.

Returning to his New York studio late in the summer of 1859, Church apparently delayed work on the large-scale canvas until the winter of 1859-60. He again put it aside during the summer of 1860 while he traveled to Mount Desert, Maine to study water effects that might be used in the painting's foreground. After much anticipation on the part of the public and the press, the large scale oil, The Icebergs (Fig. 2), was first exhibited in April of 1861 at Goupil’s Gallery in New York. Despite the concurrent outbreak of the Civil War, the painting received considerable attention. The New York Tribune described it as “the most splendid work of art that has yet been produced in this country…thoroughly original in conception and execution…It is an absolutely wonderful picture, a work of genius that illustrates the time and the country producing it” (Gerald L. Carr, Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, Dallas, Texas, 1980, p. 7).

Final Study for 'The Icebergs' was Church’s last preparatory work before committing himself fully to the monumental painting. The two are nearly identical in their compositional arrangements, with the only obvious distinction being the position of the shipwrecked sailboat. In the present work the boat ominously rests among the icebergs, providing a sense of scale for the composition while simultaneously emphasizing nature’s awe inspiring power. Following an encounter with an iceberg during the 1859 trip, Noble wrote, “We are bearing up under the big berg as closely as we dare. To our delight, what we have been wishing, and watching for, is actually taking place: loud explosions with heavy falls of ice, followed by the cataract-like roar, and the high, thin seas, wheeling away beautifully crested with sparkling foam…This precipice of ice, with tremendous cracking, is falling toward us with a majestic and awful motion. Down sinks the long water-line into the black deep; down go the porcelain crags, and galleries of glassy sculptures…Now it pauses and returns: up rise sculptures and crags streaming with the shining, white brine; up comes the great, encircling line, followed by…crags, niches, balconies and caves; up, up it rises, higher and higher still, crossing the very breast of the grand ice, and all bathed with rivulets of gleaming foam. Over goes the summit, ridge, pinnacles and all, standing off obliquely in the opposite air. Now it pauses in its upward roll: back it comes again, cracking, cracking, cracking, ‘groaning out harsh thunder’ as it comes, and threatening to burst, like a mighty bomb, into millions of glittering fragments” (After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and Around Newfoundland, New York, 1861, p. 125). Whether depicting a specific iceberg or serving as a personal recollection of Church’s experience, Final Study for 'The Icebergs' stands as one of the artist’s most successful arctic studies.