Heart of the Andes, Frederic Edwin Church

Heart of the Andes, Frederic Edwin Church
I’ve suggested on several occasions that prior to the invention of movies as we know them, painters were the special effects wizards of their day, wowing the faithful (and cowing the doubtful) in church altarpieces and murals, and, in the 19th Century, displaying their detailed large scale works in theatrical settings, in some ways anticipating the appeal of images on a big movie screen.

A prime example of the latter is a painting by American painter Frederic Edwin Church that is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art titled Heart of the Andes.

Church created these large compositions not of a specific place, but as an aggregation of scenes he encountered and studied in his travels, in this case his second trip to South America.

The large scale painting, 66 x 119 inches (160 x 302cm), or almost 6ft x 10ft, was originally displayed in a dark gallery where it was reportedly lit by theatrical gas jet and reflector lighting and displayed in an elaborate frame, decked with curtains to create the impression of a view from a window. The room was supposedly further arranged with palm fronds and visitors were provided with opera glasses to view the painting’s details.

Patrons waited in line, over 12,000 of them, and paid twenty-five cents (probably the equivalent of $6 or $7 today) to view the painting.

Heart of the Andes was sold for $10,000.00, at the time the highest price for any work by a living American artist, and eventually donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The museum devoted a special exhibition to the painting in 1993 in which there was an attempt to replicate the setting of the original exhibit.

The Met’s pages for the painting includes one of its wonderful new high-resolution image files, that can be viewed or downloaded by clicking on the “Fullscreen” option under the small image. My detail crops above were taken from the high resolution image.

5 Replies to “Heart of the Andes, Frederic Edwin Church”

  1. Church isn’t only an early special effects wizard, out to dazzle (although he certainly is that). He’s also an early documentarian, since the plants and birds in this painting are identifiable South American species.

    He belongs to the same era of scientific exploration as Humboldt, Darwin, Wallace, Cope. It was painted the same year as Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published and belongs that same world-sized drive to understand in a global sense.

    The intellectual ambition of the artists of this period is as dazzling as their technical ambition.

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