Text by Deanna MacDonald
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'In wildness is the preservation of the world'. Henry David Thoreau (1819–62)
It was this picture, along with other monumental, ‘national’ paintings like Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware, which led to calls for a city art gallery and the founding of the Metropolitan Museum. The passion this painting inspired reflected not only the artist’s popularity but the era’s fascination with the natural world and a burgeoning interest in travel. It depicts a Romantic vision of a South American landscape, inspired by the artist’s second trip to Ecuador in 1857.
Frederic Church was a student of Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School, the first American school of landscape painting that flourished between the mid–1830s and the mid–1870s. Church traveled widely throughout his career – New England, Europe, the Arctic, the Middle East, North Africa and South America – making copious sketches that he would then paint back in his New York studio. Already a success, The Heart of the Andes would make him America’s most famous painter.
This large work, five and a half feet by nearly ten feet (168.3 x 302.9 cm) was first exhibited in New York in April 1859 and caused a sensation. Exhibited in a darkened room, illuminated by gas flames behind silver reflectors and surrounded by tropical plants, it was like an imaginary trip to the Andes for the city dwellers of New York, most of whom could never dream of traveling to such an exotic place. Nearly 13,000 people paid 25 cents to file by it during its three-week début. It received a similar enthusiastic reception in London that summer and around the US as the painting toured the country over the following years.
People were fascinated not only by the foreign locale but by the nature of the Equatorial Andes, which encompassed every climatic zone from tropical to glacial. Church himself had been inspired to travel to South America by naturalist Alexander von Humbolt’s book, Cosmos, and the paintings he produced were a synthesis of Humbolt’s ideal views on nature and Cole’s Hudson River style: a typical 19th-century mix of natural science and Romanticism.
The painting depicts a lush equatorial jungle set against vast dark mountains receding to majestic, snow-capped peaks. In reality, no single view like this exists. Church took the varied landscapes he had seen and compressed them into one image. While the landscape is presented as a dramatic, idyllic vision, Church nevertheless reproduces natural elements with near botanical accuracy. When first exhibited, visitors were advised to use opera glasses to study the extraordinary detail of the plants, flowers and birds.
On a more spiritual level, nature was seen as an antidote for an ailing industrialised society. Painters like Church and Cole set out to capture the grandeur and vastness of the Americas, reflecting the time’s foreboding sense of the encroachment of civilisation and the eventual destruction of these landscapes. Thus these paintings often have a nostalgic, sentimental tone and present the North and South American landscape like the last glimpse of an earthly Eden. Church even adds a tiny Ecuadorian couple in the left foreground who kneel before a simple cross, symbolically intertwining nature, religion and salvation.
1859 Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Bocca Baciata, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts
1861 Édouard Manet: The Spanish Singer, New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art