Frederic Church (1826 – 1900) was an American landscape painter of the Romantic period. He was a pupil and close friend of Thomas Cole (American Romantic landscape painter, and a founder of the Hudson River School) and continued the preoccupations of the HRS with the most spectacular aspects of natural scenery.
Church looked and traveled beyond his native country, however, painting not only the Niagara Falls, for example, but also the tropical forests of South America, icebergs, and exploding volcanoes, often on a huge scale. He was immensely popular in his day, and after a period of neglect is returning to favor again. His house, Olana, on the Hudson River, is now a museum.
Autumn landscapes were often painted by Church, who exploited the possibilities autumn gave for brilliant coloring, from the blue sky in the upper left to the intense reds of the leaves. Characteristic of Church and other artists of his school is the light source coming from the center of the canvas, which illuminates the scene from the background in a deliberately theatrical way.
Frederic Church was Thomas Cole’s star pupil, and as Cole was the major figure in the first generation of the Hudson River School, so Church dominated the second. He did not confine himself to views of New York and New England; in the 1850s, influenced by the great explorer Alexander von Humboldt, he traveled to South America and made sketches that were the basis of a great Andean panorama.
Church painted nature with uncanny fidelity and an abiding sense of awe. His landscapes embodied America’s belief that the opening of frontiers and territorial expansion were the nation’s destiny. When this monumental painting was first shown to the public in 1859, in a darkened room and illuminated by hidden lights, it caused a sensation. In many ways, the painting carried the ideas of the Hudson River School to their most dramatic culmination.
As Cole’s most significant successor of the Hudson River School, Church’s landscapes represented unsullied nature as an embodiment of his faith in the God-given strength and mission of the New World, “America’s sacred destiny,” as he put it. An example is Niagara Falls, an icon of American painting. The extremely wide format, the horseshoe shape of the falling masses of water, and the horizontal stretch of land in the background, visualizing the incredible extent of this natural wonder, lend the picture the monumentality of a gigantic panorama.
The falls and the immense, untouched landscape become a natural symbol of the political energy of a people and nation devoted to making the world a better place to live in. The violet hue of the sky and the rainbow blur in the rising mists, conveying a sense of mystery that lends the natural motif a symbolic aspect.
“Cross in the Wilderness” depicts a wild and desolate landscape developed around the central motif of the painting, the cross, which, though placed in a central position, is overshadowed and passes almost unnoticed among the grandeur of the natural setting.