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Church's paintings are museum favorites

September 28, 2008|By BETH JOHNS, Special to The Herald-Mail

"Scene on the Catskill Creek, New York" radiates an ideal evening calm. A man in a canoe on the left and the slight ripples of the creek in the foreground suggest the only movement in this quiet wilderness.

A favorite at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, this landscape was one of many that Frederic Edwin Church painted in the 1840s and 1850s to celebrate the beauty of the northeastern American wilderness. His patrons especially liked the touch of sunset and the assurance that the land was untouched.

Ironically, in 1847, the land north and east of New York City was anything but untouched. As early as the 1820s, tourists had begun heading up the Hudson River and into the Catskills and the White Mountains for getaways to mountain hotels. Church and other landscapists followed, making sketches of visitors' favorite sites and taking the drawings back to their New York studios to turn into paintings. For "Scene on the Catskill Creek," Church might have done what many artists did: ignore the settlements and tourist trails in their sketches to create idyllic scenes.

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The most admired of the Hudson River School landscapists of his generation, Church became a household name with his painting, "Niagara Falls, 1857" (Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C.) Enthusiastic critics urged viewers to bring opera glasses to see his paintings so that they would not miss the tiny details. While American artists turned their attention to the West for wilderness landscapes, the always adventurous Church chose to go south and then north. He visited the Andes of Colombia and Ecuador in South America where he created dramatic canvases of volcanoes and tropical forests. Then he traveled to Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, to satisfy his curiosity about the Arctic regions.

After the American Civil War, he traveled overseas to Greece, North Africa and the Near East.

"Scene on the Catskill Creek, New York" will be in the exhibition "One Hundred Stories: Highlights" from the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, opening Saturday, Oct. 4.

Elizabeth Johns is a guest curator with the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts. She is curating the museum's "One Hundred Stories" this fall.

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