Edward F. de Lancey, (1821-1905) a widowed New York lawyer then touring Asia Minor whom Church met at Beirut during January or February 1868, commissioned the present picture. Church began the canvas while at his seaside Beirut hotel, continued working on it mid-year in Alpine Germany, completed it at Rome autumn 1868, and sent the finished picture to de Lancey in New York via London. In effect the painting became the artist's long-distance Syrian surrogate during the sole calendar year he spent away from the United States in 1868. Church much liked the result; he reported that visitors to his Rome studio admired it; the buyer, de Lancey, also liked it. The scene is a capriccio—i.e., composed prospect involving fictive ruined architecture. It moodily visualizes sparse Ottoman Syrian Roman remnants at sundown amid the region's semi-deserts, weathered, horizontally proportioned mountains, elongated coastline, and thinned human and domesticated animal populations. Its current title is modern and approximate. No early designation is recorded; it was not, apparently, publicly exhibited at the time. In extant documents Church termed it "a Syrian subject." An undated torn, yellowed typewritten label on the back of the stretcher which says, correctly, that it was painted "by order," identifies it as "The Lebanon Mountains."
In three extant letters (at Olana; cited above) written during 1868 from, respectively, Beirut, Paris, and New York, de Lancey discussed the commission, referring also to correspondence from the artist, one letter existing (cited above), the others unfortunately lost. Initially de Lancey asked only that Church paint something of "oriental character as a memento of my visit to these ancient and sacred lands." As de Lancey later made clear, Church conceived combining inland features and "a stretch of the Mediterranean with that soft and superb blue, that it has only in the East." De Lancey liked that idea, shared Church's vicarious fascination with ruined Palmyra in present-day Syria, and considered accompanying him to Palmyra; unfavorable circumstances, however, cancelled that journey for both of them. After starting the canvas, Mr. and Mrs. Church did visit Baalbek, in Lebanon's fertile Bekaa Valley, May 1868. In the present painting, the Corinthian columnar remnants and parched setting are, one might say wistfully, more Palmyrean—or perhaps evocative of Kunawat, Borsra, in present-day Syria, or Jerash, in present-day Jordan (to neither of which Church went, either, but which he knew through visual and verbal sources)—than Baalbekian. The painting's most Baalbekian aspect is the collapsed Corinthian capital at lower left, which simplifies Church's on-site penciled and painted vignette (Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York; inv. no. 1917-4-581) of Baalbek's "Temple of Bacchus." Lebanese seaside classical sites today within automobile reach of Beirut at Tyre and Byblos, both (particularly the former) with impressive upright columns, are mostly modern re-erections. Church passed Tyre south of Beirut five times by boat (the first, at night) but made no mention of it in extant documents; Byblos, north of Beirut, he may not have seen. He could, however, have read about both places, and he acquired at least one photograph (at Olana) of "Old Tyre." En route to Petra, in Jordan, during a key sketching expedition from Beirut February-March 1868, he had traversed impressive inland deserts. Ruins of Baalbek affirms that soon after settling at Beirut, which served as his base of operations between January and May 1868, he consulted available prints and photographs of regional antiquities and leafed books to which he has access, coordinating those sources with increasing firsthand experiences and letting his imagination roam.
As a studio project, the present picture was re-orienting—or Orientalizing—for Church. He began it just weeks after having surveyed in London during December 1867 with a well-connected English escort, the editor, playwright and art critic Tom Taylor (1817-80), the bewildering studio contents which J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), the far-famed English landscape and marine painter, had bequeathed to Britain. An autographed photograph portrait of Taylor dated "Dec 1867," preserved at Church's former home, Olana, in Upstate New York (New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation, Olana State Historic Site, Taconic Region; inv. no. 1986.228), helps document their rendezvous. That encounter couldn't have been more timely: shortly before he himself set foot in the Mediterranean, Church sought, and obtained, comprehensive contact with Turner's art. Between 1857 and 1865 Taylor had favorably reviewed for the London Times newspaper four displays in London of Church's major Western Hemisphere canvases. During his career Church was influenced by and often compared to Turner. Prior to 1867, Church would have counted himself lucky to have viewed the two principal paintings by Turner then in the U.S. Both were marines with ships, and both were owned by James Lenox (1800-80), a wealthy, reclusive New York philanthropist and bibliophile whose prodigious book, manuscript, and art collections remained mostly sequestered until after his death. More than once American journalists of the 1850s and 1860s had alluded longingly to Lenox's Turners, "which everybody has heard of but nobody has seen." Church's privileges thereto stemmed from his having painted for Lenox a major equatorial canvas, Cotopaxi (1862; Detroit Institute of Arts, Michigan). In London a half-dozen years later—select framed works by Turner were then housed at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square, while the remainder and his studio materials were in storage—Taylor helped release for Church a floodgate of artistic stimuli in that vein. Years later Church recollected having viewed there "a great many of Turner's smaller pictures and sketches." Turner had been enraptured by Italy, particularly Venice, which, admittedly, didn't interest Church. Turner had not traversed the southern Mediterranean, nor had he seen mainland or isled Greece, but he had known people who had. Aided by their testimonies and his own literary and image prowlings, from the eighteen-teens he frequently painted evocative fantasies involving ancient Rome and Roman personages and deities, and, occasionally, ancient Greek equivalents qua Greece. Though landscape vocabularies Turner mulled fabled empires, conquests and defeats, imposing sharp-edged and crumbled edifices, and pullulating crowds. In those respects as in others, Turner was heir to the French Baroque landscapist who had lived in Rome, Claude Lorrain (1600-82), as Church also knew.
Church's Ruins of Baalbek attenuates Turner's mid- and late-life Mediterranean oeuvre and to a lesser extent Claude's images with ruined architecture, while maintaining Church's signature verisimilitude. In 1992 (“Frederic Edwin Church and Italy;” cited above) I wrote that the present painting "is spare, desiccated, granular, as though atmosphere as well as objects were defined through shifting sands." Recent technical examination done at the Detroit Institute of Arts suggests that the canvas has lost some of its original subtleties, and that during the painting process Church changed his mind about portions of the composition. Regardless, it was always thinly brushed. Overall the finished painting was, and remains, deliberately distinct from anything he'd previously done in his studio(s). De Lancey's third letter to Church recapped Church's satisfaction with the picture and pondered its possible public display. "As to when & where to have it shown here, write me at once your own wishes, & they shall be fully carried out," de Lancey offered. "In my own house of course, very many would not see it, whom you would like to see it for your own sake. And as you tell me it is the 'finest' in color & possesses 'more sentiment' than any you have yet executed—the public for their own sake should have a free opportunity of viewing it...I feel from what you say, that you have produced an extraordinary work, and am truly grateful that you have taken so much interest in my commission as to do so" (Letter from Frederic Edwin Church to Edward de Lancey, Hudson, New York, November 23, 1868).
Church's next Mediterranean studio canvas, the same-size Valley of the Lebanon (1869; Fig. 1), was painted entirely at Rome. There, the depicted architecture is more ample, abundant, and particularized, the firmament and staffage comparatively intricate, and the environment inland. Because of problems with that painting's prospective English buyer, Church consigned Valley of the Lebanon (one of several titles accorded that canvas early on) to the American art market, by which means it became, November 1869, his first Mediterranean-theme work displayed in the U.S.
It seems to me that the muted Turnerian tenor of Ruins of Baalbek honestly signals Church at that initiating transitional period for him, 1868, and the bolder Valley of the Lebanon at that subsequent transitional period, 1868-69. Through his travels in Europe and especially the Mediterranean, he really did want artistically to re-frame but avoid duplicating himself. I would say that he succeeded. It counts that he believed he had, as well.
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