This painting will be included in Gerald Carr's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's oil paintings.
We would like to thank Dr. Carr for his assistance with cataloguing this lot.
A true artist-explorer, Frederic Edwin Church traveled the globe to invigorate his artistic career. While he eventually settled at Olana in upstate New York, his numerous journeys allowed him to catalogue within his memory and sketchbooks environmental details from across New England and from as far-flung locales as the tropical lands of South America and Jamaica, the foreboding icebergs of the Arctic and the ancient cities of Europe and the Middle East. On each trip, Church recorded the local flora, topography and atmosphere with astonishing detail, which upon his return to the studio would be incorporated into tremendous sublime renderings that capture the true feeling of a place, if not one exact location. Painted directly after his return from his first trip to Colombia and Ecuador in 1853, A New England Lake reveals the artist at a critical moment of his career on the verge of mass celebrity. At once embodying the essence of his beloved New England region yet also reflecting the atmosphere of the newly experienced South American tropics, A New England Lake demonstrates how Church’s worldly wanderlust spirit inspired him to develop his unique, transcendent vision of the American landscape.
In the present work, Church integrates imagery from the mountains and lakes of Vermont and Maine into a magnificent panorama of placid waters and fertile forests under hazy, distant peaks and a dramatic, colorful sky. Perhaps particularly inspired by Bigelow Mountain in Maine, the vista resembles a sketch of that location from August 1852 in the collection of the Olana State Historic Site. As praised by a reviewer when A New England Lake was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1854, “The lake is a precious little bit of water, lying in the immediate foreground, the fading (sun setting) light softly toned away into deepening shadow…A boat containing a single figure is gliding quietly in the semi-obscurity. A point of finely wooded land juts out into the lake from the left, with cows standing on the sandy shore and in the water. In the background are bold and characteristic mountains. In the middle ground, which descends abruptly to the wooded margin of the lake, are pasture fields and patches of wood. The clouds and skies are in the artist’s usual style--the former pretty highly tinted. The reflections of the water, and the water itself, are fine--about as good as we should fancy possible to art. The sentiment of the picture is of mingled quiet, solitude and sublimity.” ("Academy of Design," The Evening Mirror, New York, April 18, 1854, p. 2)
Indeed, as in the best of Church’s work, the thoughtful placement of man within a quiet yet dynamic environment of land, water and sky invites the viewer to join Church within his peaceful perception of American scenery. The glowing pink clouds set amidst the bright blue expanse of sunny sky spark musings on the awesomeness of nature. Gerald Carr reflects, "Church bids his viewers to linger with his painted re-creations, and, by extension, to linger with him. Taking the viewer, as it were, by his hand, giving him the vast expanses in which to roam, he enjoins him to perambulate, probe, and ponder. He highlights figures, human-made objects, animals, and individual and clustered natural features...Clothing his distances with tangible, breathable atmosphere, he devises lighting effects intense, subtle, supple, and steady. He gives trademark prominence to his skies. At length, after the beholder has turned away, Church entreats an escorted return visit." (In Search of the Promised Land: Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church, exhibition catalogue, New York, 2000, p. 20)
In A New England Lake, this ‘tangible, breathable atmosphere’ largely derives from Church combining the features of his classic American landscape compositions with the new type of humidity and sunlight he experienced while in South America. As Franklin Kelly explains of the artist’s records and sketches from his first exploration in 1853, “With Humboldtian precision he noted the different types of animals and foliage, but sometimes the broader views melded North and South in his mind. As he wrote to his sister: ‘…in some places [it] might resemble New England were it not for the tropical foliage.’” (Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape, Washington, D.C., 1988, p. 75) This contemplation of the similarities between the environments was manifested in his artwork upon his return back home. For example, perhaps it is not solely coincidence that the trees and peninsular outcropping at the center of A New England Lake seem to mirror the left side of a graphite etching from the banks of the River Magdalena in Colombia known as Tropical Lagoon (Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York).
In addition to possible specific inspirations from sketches executed overseas, the overall sense of light and drama in the present work seems to foreshadow Church’s South American works of the next years, which would gain him a global reputation. In fact, Carr suggests that the intense, glowing white light grazing the tree tops at right anticipates the bold sun at the center of The Andes of Ecuador (1855, Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, North Carolina), while Kelly posits that La Magdalena (1854, private collection), submitted to the National Academy the following year, is almost a tropical version of A New England Lake. As in A Country Home (1854, Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington), Church’s other 1854 submission to the Academy, “An indelible South American tone also permeates A New England Lake. The sky is much like that in A Country Home, but with an even greater sense of moist, glowing atmosphere that makes works such as Home by the Lake of 1852 seem almost airless in comparison. The mingling of northern and southern characteristics apparent in Church's writings and sketches from his 1853 trip was carried over into his finished paintings…He had seen a new world and a different landscape, and this was causing him to look with different eyes at the familiar territory of North America.” (Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape, p. 77)
Executed during this momentous turning point in his career, A New England Lake represents the culmination of Church’s early years perfecting his notion of New England topography, but also a pivotal change in style integrating the more dramatic light and aura which would create his blockbuster works of the following years, such as Heart of the Andes (1859, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Combining the discoveries from his first worldly travels with his years of experience in his more immediate New England environment, in A New England Lake, “What Church had managed to elevate was the very substance of everyday American life, a feat no other landscape painter of his era could equal." (Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape, p. 77)