Alex got a hold of my iTouch the other day, gleefully running around with it and enjoying his reflection in the tiny screen. He can already operate the DVD player better than I can, but I’m pretty technologically illiterate. Annie patiently translates such devices to me so that I can function them slightly better than most lower primates. Seeing Alex with that gadget made me think of how quaint he’d find iTouches and such when he’s old enough to be a full-fledged consumer of infotainment. Perhaps he’ll look back on our present the way I look back on my parents’ 45s. Perhaps he’ll look back on today the way we look at works such as Frederic Edwin Church’s The Heart of the Andes (above, from 1859), the show-stopper painting of mid-nineteenth century America. Born May 4, 1826, Church combined his love of nature with the skills he learned from Thomas Cole and the Hudson River School to create huge, panoramic vistas of exotic nature to bring back to American audiences, who flocked to and swooned before such works the way we today line up for IMAX theaters and high-definition television.
Church’s painting skills were matched by his marketing skills. In 1859, Church exhibited The Heart of the Andes in a special, darkened room with a sole spotlight on the painting itself. Curtains around the painting hid the frame and make you believe that you were looking through a window onto the Andes itself. Tropical plants Church had brought back with him stood around the painting, adding a final touch. Unfortunately, no photographs exist of that first exhibition, but a photo of the 1864 show (above) gives us some sense of the theater Church brought to his already theatrical production. Church would provide opera glasses for those who wanted to zoom in on small details. The Heart of the Andes captivated audiences, eventually scoring Church a selling price of $10,000, the highest price ever paid for a work by a living American artist at that time. Seeing the painting at the Met today, free of all these trappings, makes you wonder what all the fuss was about.
It’s easy to forget today the power of exotic landscapes on the nineteenth century imagination. The Lewis and Clark Expedition that opened up the American West was the equivalent of the moon landing to modern minds. A painting such as Church’s Morning in the Tropics (above, from 1877) might as well have shown the surface of Mars for all it’s fantastic otherness. Of all the Hudson River School artists, Church is the most direct heir to Cole and perhaps the closest to rival the atmospheric and lighting effects of J.M.W. Turner, the spiritual godfather of the school. Today, we can bask in the beauty of these works, admiring them as paintings and evocations of a pristine world now largely lost to development and pollution, but we can never reclaim the sense of wonder they once gave. The loss of such simple pleasures might outweigh all the technological wonders we’ve gained.