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Official Site of Speaker, Historian and Author Sean Munger

Art, Environment, History

“Chimborazo”: the stunning environmental romanticism of Frederic Edwin Church.

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Yesterday I saw this painting at the Virginia Steele Scott Gallery of American Art at the Huntington Library, and I fell in love with it immediately. It’s called Chimborazo, and it was painted in 1864 by American landscape artist Frederic Edwin Church. As beautiful as the above picture file is, it doesn’t do the original justice. The real painting is about 12 feet long and takes up an entire wall of the museum. The colors, especially the rose-pink of the foothills, the white of the Andes and the vivid green of the jungle plants, are so vivid they seem to glow. This looks almost more real than real life. The brush-strokes on the plants are so precise, and Church so meticulous in how he painted it, that each individual plant is accurate to the species it’s supposed to be, down to the number and the shape of leaves and the flowers.

Chimborazo is a mountain in the Andes, a volcano, located in Ecuador. Frederic Edwin Church trained at the Hudson River School and plied his trade in New York, but in the 1850s went to South America looking for inspiration. Given these results I’d say he found it. For years after his return in 1857 he painted scenes he’d witnessed there, most of them mountains, jungles or other impressive landscapes tinged with romanticism, which was the dominant form of landscape painting in the mid-19th century. But Church also brought another element to his pictures, that being an environmental sensibility. Here, for example, you see river, jungle and mountain regions all bound together by tight geography, and lending a majestic, spiritual quality to the scene as a whole. The spiritual dimensions of environmentalism were very prominent at this time, especially among artists. And their work did more than just produce pretty decorative pictures: this sort of artistic environmentalism was a major factor in motivating the U.S. government, and especially Theodore Roosevelt, to establish national parks and other forms of state-sponsored conservation in the late years of the century.

I just love this painting. It’s not in an archive, but it’s another amazing thing I’ve seen on my journey into the past.

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