Frederic Church achieved great renown in the nineteenth century for his heroic landscape paintings, among them Heart of the Andes (1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), in which he combined on a ten-foot (three-meter) canvas details of lush vegetation with a sweeping vista of valleys,...
Frederic Church achieved great renown in the nineteenth century for his heroic landscape paintings, among them Heart of the Andes (1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), in which he combined on a ten-foot (three-meter) canvas details of lush vegetation with a sweeping vista of valleys, plains, a waterfall, a church, and mountains of the Ecuadoran Andean landscape, culminating in the snow-capped peak of Chimborazo. But Church also conveyed the grandeur of the South American landscape in smaller oil sketches, such as Cayambe. Painted after his second trip to Ecuador, Cayambe shows the volcano of the same name in the distance, behind a lake lined with luxuriant tropical foliage. Church had first seen this volcano during his initial trip to South America in 1852. On that occasion, he was accompanied by Cyrus Field, a wealthy paper manufacturer who later won fame as the father of the transatlantic cable. Church and Field visited Colombia and Ecuador, following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), the celebrated German naturalist and explorer, under whose spell the artist had fallen in his mid-twenties. In his Picturesque Atlas (1814), Humboldt illustrated Cayambe in full color and described it as “the most beautiful as well as the most majestic” snowpeak near Quito. He remarked that Cayambe was directly on the equator, and therefore “one of these eternal monuments by which nature has marked the great division of the terrestrial globe.” Humboldt had also urged artists to study the flora through “coloured sketches taken directly from nature . . . the only means by which the artist, on his return, may reproduce the character of distant regions in more elaborately finished pictures,” and Church followed his advice, sketching avidly on the journey (as he did on his forays throughout the United States). Among the images of the volcano he made are Mount Cayambe, Ecuador, a drawing in pencil showing the top of the mountain (1853, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York), and Cayambe, a more finished oil sketch depicting the cone as well as the slopes and surrounding hilly landscape (about 1853, Olana State Historic Site, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation). The paintings Church completed after returning from his first visit were well received, and he planned a second trip to South America in 1857, this time accompanied by the painter Louis Rémy Mignot. During this visit, the artists concentrated on the magnificent Andean mountains of Ecuador. Church seemed particularly interested in observing atmospheric conditions and light effects. He made a pencil and gouache drawing of Cayambe, recording the time of day, his position, and color notes: Cayambe, Morning, from the Temple of the Sun (June 24, 1857, Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York). Below the summit of Cayambe, Church painted a layer of snow using white gouache and wrote on the sketch “snow . . . lying on the summits of the lesser mountains and paramos [high plateaus] . . . beautiful bluish haze.” Among the first paintings Church completed upon his return was a commission for a wealthy businessman and fellow devotee of Humboldt, Robert L. Stuart. Also titled Cayambe (1858, New-York Historical Society, on permanent loan from the New York Public Library), Stuart’s painting, at 30 by 48 inches (76.2 by121.9 cm), was larger than the MFA’s. The MFA’s Cayambe may have been executed in the process of composing Stuart’s composition. The Stuart picture differs from the MFA’s canvas not only in size but also in coloration—it is less green and lush—and in the inclusion of an ancient ruin and additional palm trees. Stuart had a particular fascination with archeology, and Church may have included the ruin for him. Although the MFA’s Cayambe may have been a study for the larger painting, Church took pains to imbue the painting with the distinctive atmosphere of dusk. The pale moon has risen, and although the sun has set, the afterglow still illuminates the snow-capped volcano. The twilight sky tinges the snow on the lower reaches of the mountain and the lake with a striking blue color— the “beautiful bluish haze” Church had noted on his sketch. This hue is also found in the flowers and the mist from an unseen waterfall that issues from the lagoon in the center foreground. In Cayambe Church juxtaposed a tropical jungle, a temperate zone, and the frozen area of the snow-capped volcano, thereby representing a composite of the natural history of Ecuador. Cayambe is thus a reflection on the diversity and complexity of the natural world as well as a stunning image of the “most beautiful . . . [and] most majestic” snowpeak. The early history of the MFA’s Cayambe is unknown. When the painting became available on the New York art market in the 1940s, it was purchased by Maxim Karolik, who appreciated oil sketches as much as finished works. His wife Martha Codman Karolik gave Cayambe to the MFA in 1947. Notes 1. Katherine Emma Manthorne, Tropical Renaissance: North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839–1879, New Directions in American Art (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989), 101. 2. Ibid. 3. Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, trans. Elise C. Otté, vol. 2 (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1849), 452. Janet L. Comey
Center left: F. Church/58
Before 1943, with Kaliski and Gabay, Inc., New York; 1943, with A.F. Mondschein, New York; 1945, sold by A. F. Mondschein to Maxim Karolik, Newport, R.I.; 1947, gift of Martha C. (Mrs. Maxim) Karolik to the MFA. (Accession Date: June 12, 1947)
Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865