This painting will be included in Gerald Carr's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's oil paintings.
In mid-nineteenth century America, Frederic Edwin Church was acclaimed by critics and the public alike as the preeminent artist of his day. “Church was a gentleman who ranked at the top of his profession, and had a claim to something mysteriously more: no one else could make pictures quite like his; they struck deeper into the heart of American life. That is why ‘Mr. Church’ was the nation’s ‘first’ landscape painter, when landscape painting was the nation’s first art.” (D.C. Huntington, The Landscapes of Frederic Church: Vision of an American Era, New York, 1966, p. x) No other painter of the time so fully expressed the majesty found in our nation’s natural world. Among his most notable compositions, Church’s depictions of Maine inspired notable awe from period observers and stimulated not just the next generation of painters, but an entire tradition of art in the region.
Frederic Church began his career under the tutelage of the leading American landscapist of the previous generation, Thomas Cole. Cole was the master of the heroic landscape, creating dramatized impressions of nature with strong spiritual messages. From the beginning, Church’s ability to follow in Cole’s footsteps as the leader of the Hudson River School, while incorporating Cole’s ideas into his own more objective recordings of nature, was evident. Indeed, in 1849, twenty-two-year-old Church was elected as the youngest full member of the National Academy of Design.
The following year, in 1850, Church followed in his mentor’s footsteps and set off on a sketching tour of Maine. Directly after accepting Church as a student, in the summer of 1844 Cole had travelled for the first time to Mount Desert Island, Maine, leaving Church behind to settle in at his studio in the Catskills. Cole meticulously filled his sketchbook with more than a dozen drawings of the region, which he returned with to his studio and shared with his protégé. For his own trip, Church traveled by train to Portland in southern Maine and then boarded a steamer and a schooner to complete the journey to Mount Desert. During this first journey, Church not only recorded his impressions in pencil and oil, but also in verse, publishing them anonymously in the November 1850 issue of the Bulletin of the American Art Union.
In Rough Surf, Mount Desert Island, Maine, rather than depict a more traditional panorama of the Maine landscape, Church instead focuses on a close-up view of the spirited dance of waves on the rocky coast. A modern, yet difficult perspective to accurately capture, Church lamented, “[w]e tried painting them, and drawing them and taking notes of them, but cannot suppress a doubt that we shall neither be able to give actual motion nor roar to any we may place upon canvas." (as quoted in J.K. Howat, Frederic Church, New Haven, 2005, p. 33) Despite this humble statement, in the present work, Church masterfully captures the frothy scene with both immediacy and drama, which is likely the result of both his first hand observation in the field and his meticulous development within the confines of his studio. In Rough Surf, Mount Desert Island, Maine, “[t]he unmistakable feeling of plein-air execution is conveyed by the informality of the composition; the scene was viewed at an angle from which the artist could study the patterns on the moving water as it crashed against the rocks and receded, frothing, out to sea. Broad, sure strokes define the rocky shoreline, a solid foil to the fluid, nuanced strokes that make up the foaming water. Church’s brush dances over the expanse of water, creating a rhythmic sweep punctuated by stippled whitecaps and foam.” (E.J. Harvey, The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880, New York, 1998, p. 155)
Following his initial trip to Maine in 1850, Church would take more than a dozen trips to the state over the course of thirty years. The painter’s popular depictions of Maine propelled tourists to explore in person the previously underappreciated landmarks, with his paintings essentially acting as advertisements. By 1872, Church’s great influence on the tourist industry of the area inspired Harper’s to write, “Church’s pictures of scenery at Mount Desert were seen in the exhibitions of the National Academy. At one time or another most of all the noted artists have followed on sketching tours, and it is chiefly by this means, in the first instance, that Mount Desert has become so popular as a watering place…Now, most of the visitors to Mount Desert, even the prosaic folk, go prepared to enjoy the picturesque, the beautiful, the sublime.” (“Mount Desert,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, vol. 45, no. 267, August 1872, p. 324)
Perhaps even more important than his influence on the public was his direct influence on the generations of painters that have followed in his footsteps. From Winslow Homer to John Marin, George Bellows and Marsden Hartley to Richard Estes, Church’s love of Maine, and the popularity of his resulting works, was arguably the spark for an important Maine tradition in American art. The public appreciation of America’s wilderness as depicted by Church also invigorated artists, such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, to explore the nation’s yet undiscovered areas, and over the long term created a national appreciation for preserving such sites through national parks, such as Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. In works such as Rough Surf, Mount Desert Island, Maine, Church offers a vision of an unspoiled, wild landscape. He presents in such works the prospect of a new kind of painting, drawn from the past, particularly from Cole, and pointing to a new understanding of American identity, as understood through its unique and magical natural world.