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  • Writer's pictureChelsea Susan Bednar

A Brief History of Frederic Church

The Era of Romanticism

Catopaxi, oil on canvas, 1862

In the early 1800s, America was facing prominent growth. While the land developed outward to the North and West, societies’ views on spiritualism and life were changing. A genuine sense of nationalism was developing among the early states, influenced by the works of prominent writers, poets, and artists of the day. Well known creatives of the time include William Blake, Robert Burns, Mary Shelley, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman. The works from the individuals of this era broke the mold society had previously set, laying the foundation for the art of written & visual storytelling to this day. Themes centralized around the ideas for equality, justice, and freedom for all, looking towards an imaginative future.

The richness and beauty of uninterrupted nature in New England was captured through the hands of the Hudson Valley Artists. Thomas Cole was the founder of this movement, setting the standard for American Landscape Painting. His pupil, Fredric Church, would become known not only as a vital member of the group, but also as the highest paid living artist of his era. Church became renowned for his massive paintings, so perfectly emulating the details of nature and light that it seemed one could almost walk into his compositions. Most notably was the stroke of his bush, or lack there of - the artist ‘hid’ his brushstrokes so masterfully, that the surface of the painting was smooth and any sort of textural ‘personality’ was absent. People payed to view showcases of individual paintings, getting lost for hours in the details of his work. Today, Church’s works continue to remain the golden standard of the Romanticist Era.

Early Career

Born into wealth in 1826, Fredric Church was privy to study his artistic passions from an early age. Due to his connections in the social world, he was introduced to renowned landscape painter Thomas Cole. With their shared passion for art, Church began apprenticing under Cole, developing his technical skillsets and eye for painting. Cole praised Church’s eye for composition and hand at drawing, by proclaiming that he had “the finest eye for drawing in the world”. By 1844, Church had grown to become Cole’s pupil student, exhibiting with a solo debut of a major painting in New York City. Gaining popularity, Fredrick quickly became one of the most sought after artists of the era. He continued to travel New England alongside Cole, painting and documenting the untouched land.

Finding An Artistic Voice

View on the Magdalena River, oil on canvas, 1857

In his early works, the impact from Cole’s teachings are more noticeable, with a focus on allegorical metaphors featured as subject matter to his paintings. Popular writers and philosophers of the age aided in influencing how Church went about creating. Explorer Alexander von Humboldt wrote on the interconnectedness of of the natural world, spiritual ideas, and how the artist’s role was to portray nature as ‘scientifically’ as possible. The writings of John Ruskin aided in this idea through his concept on portraying nature in paint with "equal precision” to the subject matter, from the clouds to the rocks, all the way down to every plant type.

Early America was quickly developing with New York expanding rapidly towards the North. In effort to capture the quickly disappearing American frontier, Church felt it was his mission to preserve history through his hand. Church was moved by the vast, unsettled, raw landscapes, and chose to depict them exactly as the wild realism that they were. Many of the paintings are so detailed that the natural life depicted within them can be identified to this day.

Church joined ranks with the Hudson Valley School Artists, cementing his role as one of the foundational artists of the movement. As a full member, he began opening his services and taking on students of his own. In 1848, Church was elected into the National Academy of Design, marking his place as the youngest associate elected to date.

The Duality of Style and Scientific Detail

Heart of the Andes, oil on canvas, 1859

By 1850, Church had developed a strong artistic voice had exhibited in a multitude of significant galleries, including the American Art Union, the Boston Art Club, and the National Academy of Design. He had developed an artistic method of creating detailed sketches in nature, to be followed with a painting based on them in the studio. Expanding on the skillsets he had learned at an earlier age, Church explored with dramatizing various stylistic choices, including an emphasis on contrast in lighting and detail within the subject matter. The duality of Church’s works was in capturing the realistic details of nature while emphasizing an idealistic interpretation of the landscapes at large. One of his most famous paintings, “The Heart of the Andes” was notable among artists and scientists alike. The massive piece was so detailed that flora and fauna were identifiable among the multiple climates zones captured within the painting. At it’s single painting world premier in 1859 in New York City, it was said to be a ‘window looking out onto the Andes”, captivating it's audience to stare at the floor to ceiling painting for hours. The showcase was the largest success to date selling for $10,000, making Church the highest paid artist of his time. Church's attention to scientific detail and accuracy led to his election as an Associate Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1863.

Later career

Autumn, oil on canvas, 1875

By 1860, Church had set roots to settle down. He purchased a farm in Upstate New York with means to start a family with his newlywed, Isabel Mortimer Carnes. The couple had three children, and in 1870 Church began the construction of his beloved Olana Estate. In the summer of 1872 the family moved into the Persian-inspired mansion. While the property’s design and construction shifted hands a couple times, Church was consistently involved in the design process of the estate.

While the popularity of his painting style began to dwindle in the public eye for being “old fashioned”, Church continued to paint in his studio. In the last couple decades, Church dedicated his time to the development of Olana, painting, and enjoying life in the Catskills. In 1900, Church passed away at the age of 73, leaving behind an remarkable legacy. His work saw a small resurgences with an exhibition dedicated to the Hudson River School at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1945 and with a featured article on his painting The Heart of the Andes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin in 1960.


Church’s beloved family home as been preserved and is open to the public, officially known as Olana State Historic Site. Explore the estate grounds and tour the museum; there is a lot to do on property grounds, including classes, events, guided tours and more. See our blog post with our favorite recommendations for a local field trip to Olana Estate.

We hope you enjoyed this historical dive into the life of American artist Fredric Church. Planning a day trip? Check out our blog posts with our favorite recommendations for a local field trip to the Olana State Historic Site. Thank you for reading.

the {verdigreen} hotels team

Looking for somewhere to stay in the Hudson Valley? Check out one of our three upstate properties in Woodstock, Tannersville, and East Chatham.

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