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Fredric Church: “The Icebergs”

Several years ago Lynne and I visited the Dallas Museum of Fine Art. On display was landscape painter Fredric Church’s majestic “The Icebergs” (64” x 112”), which depicts a scene from the painter’s voyage off the coast of Labrador in the mid-19th century. I was struck by the story of thousands of New Yorkers, like modern moviegoers, standing in line at its debut. They paid to see it. The narrator explained that few, if any, of the viewers had ever seen an iceberg. There were no photographs, perhaps not even other paintings of icebergs. So, the visual experience was novel.

Look at the picture. The broken mast was a later addition, added to give the painting perspective. Interestingly, the broken mast – a symbol of maritime tragedy – was no small part of the painter’s own story, for what prompted Church’s trip to the Arctic was the search for the remains of a lost expedition.

Church was prominent among a group of New York City-based landscape painters painters known as The Hudson River School. His other works include “The Heart of the Andes.”

Inspired by the narratives of the famous German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), Church made two trips to South America. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

“The picture was publicly unveiled in New York at Lyrique Hall, Broadway, on April 27, 1859. Subsequently moved to the gallery of the Tenth Street Studio Building, it was presented in a dark, curtained frame designed to look like a window and illuminated by carefully orchestrated lighting in a darkened chamber. The exhibition caused a sensation, and twelve to thirteen thousand people paid twenty-five cents apiece to see it. The picture was later shown in London and eight other American cities, where it was greatly admired as well.”

In another post, I wrote about James Holman, “The Blind Traveler,” one of the 19th century’s daring adventurers. Blindness did not keep him from becoming  one of the most widely traveled men of his day. By word, painting, and sketch, men like Holman, Church, and von Humboldt brought the wonders of faraway places to those who seldom had the time, physical stamina, and wherewithal to travel.