Exhibit offers look at holiday traditions

November 23, 2003|by Chris Copley

Little birds singing Christmas carols. Polar bears carrying a traditional English Christmas pudding. A snow witch's daughter firing up flurries by rubbing down off a goose.

Frederick Stuart Church illustrated these and other fairy-tale-flavored holiday scenes in four decades of work for Harper's Weekly, The Ladies Home Journal and other magazines. Examples of Church's prints, most from the 1880s and '90s, are on display now at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts.

Museum curator Amy Metzger-Hunt says the illustrations came to Hagerstown from a distance. They were loaned by Dale and Rosie Horst of Newton, Kan., from their collection of 700-plus illustrations by Church.


"Church displays a wonderful, whimsical sense of imagination and frequently humor in his works. They simply make you smile," says Dale Horst. "Many of his works have a definite element of (Edward Hicks' early American painting) 'Peaceable Kingdom' in them, and we like that."

Horst says he and his wife prefer Church's earlier work, reproduced by wood engraving. In the 1870s, artists like Church drew images on a block of wood, which was then engraved and printed. In the 1880s, technology improved; artists' original drawings were photographed and printed on the wood block before engraving.

By 1890, Horst says, technology improved again; the photo-mechanical halftone was developed. Instead of using engraved lines, original art was printed through the use of tiny dots - still the prevailing technology today.

"The wood engraver added an additional artistic element in how his ... cuts depicted texture and 'color,'" Horst says. "We are partial to the engravings but include halftones for the sake of completeness."

Metzger-Hunt says the exhibit of the Horsts' collection of Church's illustrations was arranged because the Hagers-town museum owned one of Church's original magazine illustrations, "Cold Sauce with the Christmas Pudding."

The painting, executed in black and white oil paint on paper, is exhibited side by side with the print of the same illustration from the Horsts' collection. The Horsts have donated the print to the museum.

Church was part of a wave of illustrators who drew for women's and children's magazines in the late 1800s. He was born in Grand Rapids, Mich., in 1842 and was directed by his parents to study business. Instead, he pursued painting in schools in Chicago and New York. He produced popular oil paintings with fantasy themes, but is best remembered for his magazine illustrations.

He was especially skilled in illustrating animals, something Church studied from a young age, according to Metzger-Hunt.

"When he was young, he worked on a farm," she says. "He taught art to two daughters. He also drew the farm animals. He learned their mannerisms, gave them features, personalized them."

As a working artist, Church continued to study and draw animals. He studied wildlife in parks, even sketched zoo and circus animals.

Church gave his animals human expressions and activities. In the current exhibit, his subjects are involved in classic holiday fun: caroling, playing in the snow, making Christmas puddings, opening gifts.

These scenes are part of the exhibit's hook for Metzger-Hunt.

"These were everyday magazines," she says. "These would be everyday scenes for them. They would have dressed like that. These would be their traditions."

"Holiday Illustrations by Frederick S. Church" will be on display through Sunday, Jan. 4.

If you go ...

"Holiday Illustrations by Frederick S. Church"

Washington County Museum of Fine Arts

City Park, Hagerstown

Continues through Sunday, Jan. 4.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

Call 301-739-5727 or go to on the Web.

The Herald-Mail Articles