Frederic Edwin Church seems first to have visited the area around Middlebury, Vermont in 1849, when he executed several sketches of Belden Falls and Otter Creek. Captivated by the beauty of the scenery and the lush, light-filled countryside, the artist would return to the region several times again over the course of his career.
Church painted Otter Creek, Middlebury, Vermont in 1854, a year when the artist had fully achieved his mature style and he was beginning to paint some of the most important canvases in his career, including The Andes of Ecuador of 1855 and Niagara of 1857. In Otter Creek, Middlebury, Vermont, Church has taken a modest part of the New England landscape--a simple creek and nearby pasture--and has idealized them, elevating them to the level of an ideal pastoral setting. In the middleground Otter Creek cascades over rocks and falls into a broad, round pool that reaches to the front of the composition. In the right middle distance a herd of cows meanders back to a barn visible at the far end of the meadow. In the far distance the artist inserts his signature 'church' steeple--perhaps the Congregational church found in the middle of town--in the far distance. Church occasionally used this self-referential device in his landscape compositions during this period of his career. The right foreground displays Church's characteristic lush vegetation--vines covering a fallen log and shrubs flourishing in the bright sun. Overall the composition is infused with bright, clear light--a symbol of the hope and future of the America.
During this period of the mid-1850s, Church developed a series of compositions related to New England scenery. Like the finest of these paintings, Otter Creek, Middlebury, Vermont is filled with a serene sense of American light and space, characteristics evident in other paintings from this period. Otter Creek, Middlebury, Vermont also shares a sensibility with similar compositions by Church's mentor Thomas Cole. For example, Cole's Catskill Creek (The New-York Historical Society, New York) shows an idealized vision of the American landscape--a landscape in which man and nature peacefully coexist. The distant mountains define the outer limits of the composition, while overhead the sky is filled with warm, inviting light. In Church's Otter Creek, Middlebury, Vermont, the same sensibility is evident--the full clouds in the distant sky balance the warm golden light emanating from the left side of the sky.
Numerous writers during this period praised the unique qualities of the American landscape. In his celebrated 'Letters on Landscape Painting' published in The Crayon, Asher B. Durand wrote, "Go not abroad then in search of material for the exercise of your pencil, while the virgin charms of our native land have claims upon your deepest affections. Many are the flowers in our untrodden wilds that have blushed too young unseen, and their original freshness will reward your research with a higher and purer satisfaction than appertains to the most brilliant exotic." Durand's insistence on the elevated qualities of native subject matter is at the heart of Otter Creek, Middlebury, Vermont. The painting is at once a reflection of American self-awareness, and a celebration of the beauty of the American landscape.