In 1859, the year that Charles Darwin published his magnum opus, a large painting, about 5 feet high and ten feet wide was unveiled in New York’s Studio Building on West 10th Street. The event attracted an unprecedented turnout for a single-painting exhibition in the United States.
More than 12,000 people paid an admission fee of twenty-five cents to view the painting. Even on the final day of the showing, patrons waited in line for hours to enter the Exhibition Room.
The room was darkened. Carefully positioned lights focused the eye and the mind on the painting and excluded all else. Curtains were arranged around it to give the impression of a view through a window. Dried plants were arranged in the room to add to the atmosphere, probably alongwith artefacts brought back by the painter from his travels. Viewers sat on a bench for their allotted time and were provided opera glasses so as to examine the details closer.
The painting was “The Heart of the Andes“. The painter was Frederic Edwin Church (May 4, 1826 – April 7, 1900), an American landscape painter. Church travelled to South America twice in the 1850s. Inspired by the great Prussian naturalist and explorer, Alexander von Humboldt, he painted a series of extremely fine landscapes.
Before I say more, I include the picture below. Now, I would like you to do exactly as I say.
Have a look at the image below.
Then download the large 3.4 MB sized image from here or by clicking the image. Look at the full image in detail and appreciation. It helps if there are no distractions. For best results, turn the room dark, shut off all appliances (music, cell-phone etc), calm down, be at peace and then look at it.
Then look at each part of the painting in detail. (Yes, we want you to learn to appreciate art; not eat fast-food!)
Imagine you have paid your 25 cents way back that April day back in 1859 and you have momentarily been given leave to examine the painting all by yourself in the room.Take your time. Get the feel of it. Form your own impression of it.
Having done that. I’ll tell you more…
For a factual description of the work let Wikipedia do the talking :
“The Heart of the Andes” is a composite of the South American topography observed by Church during his travels. At the center right of the mountain landscape is a shimmering pool served by a waterfall. The snow-capped, majestic Mount Chimborazo of Ecuador appears in the distance; the viewer’s eye is led to it by the darker, closer slopes that decline from right to left. The evidence of human presence consists of a lightly worn path that fades away, a hamlet and church lying in the central plain, and closer to the foreground, two natives are seen before a cross. The church, a trademark detail in Church’s paintings, is Catholic and Spanish-colonial, and seemingly inaccessible from the viewer’s location. Church’s signature appears cut into the bark of the highlighted foreground tree at left. The play of light on his signature has been interpreted as the artist’s statement of man’s ability to tame nature—yet the tree appears in poor health compared to the vivid jungle surrounding it.
To understand Church’s work, we must begin with his main inspiration – Alexander von Humboldt, Church’s intellectual guru as surely as he was Darwin‘s, Alfred Russel Wallace‘s and Louis Agassiz‘s. At that point of time, Humboldt was arguably the most influential intellectual in the world. Humboldt had explored South America at the turn of the eighteenth century. His travel narratives and his seminal work “Kosmos” were hugely influential and engrossing. Indeed, they formed part of Church’s library. Church, of course, was heavily influenced by Humboldtian Science.
Humboldt believed that the highest ideal lay in the representation of the unity amidst the complexity of nature, a synthesis of Kantian views of unity of natural phenomena.
For Humboldt, “the unity of nature” meant that interrelation of all physical sciences – such as the conjoining between biology, meteorology, and geology that determined where specific plants grew – which the scientist unraveled by discovering myriad, painstakingly collecting data. In his opinion, Nature was not to be exalted with religious ideals but to be appreciated in another context. Both the accuracy and exactness of data and its aesthetic charactersitics were to be appreciated hand in hand.
Humboldt considered that the highest ideals of understanding unity amongst diversity in nature were the practice of three disciplines – nature poetry, growing exotic plants and landscape painting.
Church retraced Humboldt’s foot-steps in South America, even hiring the same house that Humboldt had stayed in Quito. Church taking Humboldt’s philosophy as gospel, painted a dazzling series of canvases, of which the Heart of the Andes is most prominent.
In this vast portrayal of a notional South American landscape view – no place exists on Earth which provides such a view – Church drew each botanical, geological or meteorological fact to exact detail. The plants in his great work can be identified and compared. They grow exactly like Church painted them. And by including such finer aspects mentioned by Humboldt in his treatises as
“the thin vapour which, without changing the transparency of the air, renders its tints more harmonious and softens its effects…”,
Church paid true homage to Humboldt.
After the painting’s triumphant reception in America, Church took it to Europe. His desire was to
“to have the satisfaction of placing before Humboldt, a transcript of the scenery which delighted his eyes sixty years ago – and which he had pronounced to be the finest in the world.”
It was too late. Humboldt died before the painting reached Europe. Church’s wish remained unfulfilled but he went to paint many more beautiful landscapes.
Now it is time to look at the painting again but with new eyes.
Rather than end the post with this sombre note, let me recast Stephen Jay Gould’s conclusion in his brilliant essay on the Heart of the Andes.
“Picture that fellow admirer of Humboldt, Church’s contemporary, Charles Darwin as he stood in the Heart of the Andes drinking deeply from the vista with a spiritual reverence no less than that of Humboldt and Church. Yet he was to go on to demolish the romantic naturalism of Humbodt with a new vision of unfeeling, uncaring nature. He says :
It has been for me a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes, he is overwhelmed by what he sees and cannot justly comprehend it. Such are my feelings and such may they remain. “
We rarely get to appreciate art in blog posts of today’s world. Appreciating art is like reading a good book or drinking a balloon glass of fine VSOP brandy or enjoying a great piece of classical music. The tempo of life needs to be suspended awhile.
- Images : Wikimedia Commons & http://www.artchive.com.
- Information :
- Wikipedia links.
- Gould, Stephen Jay. (2002). “Art meets Science in The Heart of the Andes.” in “I have Landed : the end of a beginning in natural history.” Harmony Books, (418 pages) ISBN 978060901433. Abstract.