"Nature has been very lavish here in the gift of her beauty – I am sure you would enjoy the noble scenes which our windows command."
- FREDERIC EDWIN CHURCH
Currently on view in our exhibition Church & Rothko: Sublime, Sunset on July 26, 1870, and Mountainside Downpour are two examples of a unique part of Frederic Edwin Church’s prodigious body of work. The first, Sunset on July 26, 1870, is a warm and lyrical depiction of the last bursts of color on the evening of that day. The second, Mountainside Downpour, instead shows us the cloudy, cool hues brought on by a sudden and intense rainstorm. Although different in palette and tone, the two paintings share meaningful correlations. For one, they both depict the landscape of the Catskills, one of Church’s most trusted and significant subjects. Moreover, the two were painted within a year of each other, 1870 and 1871, respectively, inciting a dialogue around a specific moment in Church’s long career. Finally, both share an intimate scale and use of oil on paper, providing parallels to the larger and more stately canvases on which Church’s reputations rest.
For many years, Sunset on July 26, 1870, was misattributed to Jervis McEntee, a former pupil of Church’s. However, Gerald L. Carr, a leading Church scholar and author of his catalog raisonné, compellingly argues for Church as the true painter of the picture. Notably, he corroborates the handwriting of the signature with that of other Church paintings. Likewise, Carr has noted that during June and July 1870, when building on Church’s now-historic home Olana had begun, Church executed a group of small paintings of morning and evening skies surrounding the house, all of which are dated like the present work. Many of these are now in the collection of the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, in addition to one owned by the Olana State Historic Site. With its effortless flair and sumptuous, painterly dabs of color, the piece initially seems at odds with the technical fastidiousness of Church’s better-known landscapes. However, this predilection for a looser style is not uncommon in Church’s smaller studio paintings. As such, Sunset on July 26, 1870, was almost certainly meant as a private nature study, not as a commission or painted for a specific exhibition.
Mountainside Downpour shares a similarly intriguing history, in this case, regarding its provenance. The scene depicts the southern tip of the Catskill Mountains as dark rainclouds lingers overhead, unleashing a torrent of water onto the mountain as illustrated by Church’s vigorous, fluid downward brushstrokes. It was previously in the collection of Walter Launt Palmer, the son of nineteenth-century sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer. Erastus was a pupil of Church’s, studying with him at Olana in the early 1870s when he was only just a teenager. The two worked quite well together, going on to share a studio in New York City by 1878. The painting then remained with Palmer’s estate until 2017. That it remained in the family for so long is a testament to the impact Church had on the young Palmer.
Seen side-by-side, Sunset on July 26, 1870, and Mountainside Downpour provide a unique opportunity to see Church experimenting with new ways of illustrating the types of landscapes that would provide him with a lifetime’s worth of inspiration.
"Enterprise is, indeed, a prominent characteristic of Church; he has had the bravery to seek and the patience to delineate subjects heretofore scarcely recognized by art, one of whose benign missions it is to extend the enjoyment which time and space limit, and bring into mutual and congenial acquaintance the most widely separate glories of the universe.”
- HENRY T. TUCKERMAN, BOOK OF THE ARTISTS (1867)