Frederic Church (1826-1900) is regarded as one of the most influential painters of the Hudson River School. He was a pupil of Thomas Cole, the founder of the school, and his mature works were considered the “culmination of romantic landscape painting in America”. In the eighteenth century, landscape painting was not considered an important genre; portrait painting was the main field of artistic endeavor. However, with the rise of the Romantic movement, as described by William Wordsworth in England, Nature was seen as having a spiritual message for mankind, an ennobling influence that could be more inspirational than the depressing urban environment.
In America, however, there were difficulties in establishing an interest in landscapes that were not present in Europe. American settlers had by and large thought of Nature as their enemy rather than their friend as they tried to carve out farms in the wilderness. Thomas Cole, a young painter in the most settled part of the United States, New York and the surrounding area, painted three landscapes of the Hudson River that were an immediate sensation. His work proved that there was something grand and inspirational in the broad river, noble mountains and deep, primeval forests. It was on this basis that landscape painting became established in America as a distinctive genre in the first half of the nineteenth century.
Frederic Church, in the early works in which Cole’s influence as a teacher was most evident, painted scenes of the Catskills and the scenery of New England, which showed the almost photographic detail and atmosphere for which the Hudson Valley School was known. The degree of detail with which he invested his paintings made them seem super-realistic, almost hallucinatory in the exactitude of his rendering. However, he also concentrated on developing a way of portraying light so that it almost seemed to glimmer forth from the lakes and mountains themselves. At the same time, he made his subjects larger and larger, encompassing great expanses of Nature, rather than narrowing his focus to a smaller scene. The effect of these innovations was a sense of sweeping majesty and grandeur, in which the landscape itself seemed full of a spiritual life.