When Frederic Church exhibited his vast, sublime American landscapes in Britain in 1859, they caused a sensation. There was a gap in the romantic landscape market after the deaths of Constable, Turner and John Martin, and The Art Quarterly immediately hailed Church as the new Turner. But the great critic John Ruskin remained aloof: “He can draw clouds as few men can, though he does not know yet what painting means, and I suppose he never will.”
Church was a paradox. Obsessive about the minutiae of detail, he slavishly took Ruskin’s advice “neither to choose, nor compose, nor imagine, nor experimentalise, but to be humble and earnest in following the steps of nature, and tracing the finger of God”. Yet he was also a showman, kitsch-merchant and topographer-adventurer. All those qualities are evident in this show of oil sketches – Newfoundland icebergs, each peak and crevice individualised; Jamaican mountains; Ecuador’s black-smoking Sangay Volcano – made in preparation for large-scale canvases but also as finished works, demonstrating Church’s authentic, plein air method.
Scotland (in summer this show goes to Edinburgh) has lent the monumental “Niagara Falls, from the American Side” – a nearly six-metre-square picture overwhelmingly taken up with tumbling water, mist, spray – to be compared here with rapidly painted sketches of the scene: one an almost monochromatic mass of fog and foam, another dramatising rocks into grotesque human features, a third experimenting with turquoise hues by overpainting a photograph. There are also precise studies of a patch of forest and of a woodland pond, plus a hand-painted version of Church’s bestselling lithograph, “Our Banner in the Sky”, where the stars of the flag emerge through a sunset – confirming Nature and God on the northern side in the American civil war. Piety as visual imagination, a pre-Darwinian sense of harmonious design yet a scientist’s accuracy and a pioneer’s thrill of place: Church intrigues as a historical record of the mindset of mid-19th-century America.
Until April 28, www.nationalgallery.org.uk