Church (May 4, 1826 – April 7, 1900) was an American landscape painter born in Hartford, Connecticut. He was a central figure in the Hudson River School of American landscape painters. While committed to the natural sciences, he was “always concerned with including a spiritual dimension in his works.”
Church settled in New York where he taught his first pupil, William James Stillman. From the spring to autumn each year Church would travel, often by foot, sketching. He returned each winter to paint and to sell his work.
In 1853 and 1857, Church traveled in South America. One trip was financed by businessman Cyrus West Field, who wished to use Church’s paintings to lure investors to his South American ventures. Church was inspired by the Prussian explorer Alexander von Humboldt‘s Cosmos and his exploration of the continent; Humboldt had challenged artists to portray the “physiognomy” of the Andes.
Two years after returning to the US, Church painted The Heart of the Andes (1859), now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, at the Tenth Street Studio in New York City. It is more than five feet high and nearly ten feet in length (167.9 × 302.9 cm). Church unveiled the painting to an astonished public in New York City in 1859. The painting’s frame had drawn curtains fitted to it, creating the illusion of a view out a window. The audience sat on benches to view the piece and Church strategically darkened the room, but spotlighted the landscape painting. Church also brought plants from a past trip to South America to heighten the viewers’ experience. The public were charged admission and provided with opera glasses to examine the painting’s details. The work was an instant success. Church eventually sold it for $10,000, at that time the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist.
Church showed his paintings at the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design, the American Art Union, and at the Boston Art Club, alongside Thomas Cole, Asher Brown Durand, John F. Kensett, and Jasper F. Cropsey. Critics and collectors appreciated the new art of landscape on display, and its progenitors came be to called the Hudson River School.
In 1860 Church bought a farm in Hudson, New York and married Isabel Carnes. Both Church’s first son and daughter died in March, 1865 of diphtheria, but he and his wife started a new family with the birth of Frederic Joseph in 1866. When he and his wife had a family of four children, they began to travel together. In 1867 they visited Europe and the Middle East, allowing Church to return to painting larger works.
Before leaving on that trip, Church purchased the eighteen acres (73,000 m²) on the hilltop above his Hudson farm—land he had long wanted because of its magnificent views of theHudson River and the Catskills. In 1870 he began the construction of a Persian-inspired mansion on the hilltop and the family moved into the home in the summer of 1872. Richard Morris Hunt was the architect for Cosy Cottage at Olana, and was consulted early on in the plans for the mansion, but after the Church’s trip to Europe and what is now Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, the English architect Calvert Vaux was hired to complete the project. Church was deeply involved in the process, even completing his own architectural sketches for its design. This highly personal and eclectic castle incorporated many of the design ideas that he had acquired during his travels.
Illness affected Church’s output. Although he was enormously successful as an artist by 1876 Church was stricken with rheumatoid arthritis which greatly reduced his ability to paint. He eventually painted with his left hand and continued to produce his work although on a much slower pace. He devoted much of his energies during the final 20 years of his life to his house at Olana. Church died on April 7, 1900. He is buried in Spring Grove Cemetery, Hartford, Connecticut.