VERY FINE EYE:
A ONE-MAN SHOW
Thomas Cole once said to
me, “If the imagination is shackled and nothing is described
but what we see, seldom will anything truly great be produced either
painting or poetry.”
It is certainly the imagination,
which can make the highest use of the facts, by arranging them so
as to produce the strongest impression of the truth. The loftier
the subject, the greater the need for imagination. Grasp nature
with one hand and do what you like with the other. Good night.
~ Frederic Church
A VERY FINE EYE: A CONVERSATION
WITH FREDERIC CHURCH
Interior of Olana, the home
of Frederic Church. The audience is seated in the Court Hall facing
the stage area (stair landing). A staircase rises to a landing then
continues, out of sight to the second floor. There is a large cathedral
window at the landing which serves as a beautiful backdrop to the
setting. It consists of large double panes of glass with paper, cut
into a mosaic pattern, pressed in between. The window is golden yellow,
the color of late afternoon sunlight. Mr. Church descends the stairs
and as he comes into view on the landing he stops and gazes out the
window. He is in his early sixties. The signs of Rheumatism are already
visible in his hands and his movement making him appear much older.
He sports his enormous mustache and mutton chops. He carries a leather
bound folder. After a long moment of studying the landscape effects
out the window, he turns to continue down the stairs and is startled
at the sight of the audience. When he speaks he speaks directly to
the audience as if they were guests at his home.
Oh, my! I was told there were guests waiting to see me downstairs,
but I had no idea you would be so many. I normally receive visitors
in the East Parlor. How we could fit a gathering this size in the
East Parlor is entirely beyond me. The Court Hall will serve nicely.
I will join you.
He has begun his descent of
the stairs. His arthritic affliction is apparent; his movements are
difficult and deliberate. He pauses briefly to catch his breath.
I am a victim of rheumatism. It makes my knees rather stiff. Capital
idea putting joints midway in the legs. I could never have appreciated
the importance of it fully if I had not been stiffened there. The
perfect stairway to ascend 13 feet requires a space equivalent in
length to 40 feet not including the landing at the top or bottom.
The Romans were the best stair builders. I measured the most perfect
stairs in Rome, the Piazza di Spagna, five and one half
inch riser and a nineteen inch tread. These stairs measure fifteen
and one half inch tread and six inch rise. The importance of an
easy stairway in a house cannot be over rated.
When he has reaches the stage
area he investigates the set. There is a table containing a small
Mexican pottery vase. Rather than flowers, a large assortment of brushes
protrude from it's mouth. There are two Persian looking bottles possibly
containing turpentine and linseed oil. There is also a chair with
arms. A pitcher of water and a glass sit on a small table next to
the chair. Prominently displayed on the table is a photograph in an
oval frame, and a small leather bound book, a diary.
I assume you know who I am or you would not be here, but one should
never assume. Therefore, I am Mr. Church and I spell my name, Frederic,
without a "K". You are a very nice looking group of guests.
In fact as nice a looking group as I can recall seeing in quite
some time. Allow me the courtesy of welcoming you to my home, Olana.
Mahaba, as it says in Arabic above the door, welcome. I once wrote
to my dear friend Erastus Palmer, " About an hour this side
of Albany is the center of the world. I own it."
Can you imagine the nudge Galileo gave
Copernicus when he heard that!
He ponders a moment.
The center of the world. Did you think it would look
such as this? I remain in awe of God's work in nature.
He pauses a moment, looking toward the southern sky. After a moment
he refers to the folder in his hand.
Charles Dudly Warner has been digging through my old letters as
he is preparing some sort of biography. He said I might find these
of use during our conversation. By the way if you have any old letters
from me lying around I feel quite certain Warner would like to see
them. Feel free to drop them by at any time.
He opens and places the folder
on the table. He finds one of special interest and takes it with him
as he sits. He pulls his pocket watch from his vest pocket and checks
I was born May 4, 1826 in Hartford, Connecticut. I am a landscape
painter. During dinner one evening I happened to make the mistake
of referring to myself as a landscape artist, wherein a visitor
friend of Erastus Palmer arose from my table exclaiming, "You
made all this here money plantin' trees?" No. Not exactly.
No. But I was extremely fortunate in my life. God blessed me with
three gifts, the visual understanding of light, the ability to retain
detail indefinitely and the privilege to have studied with Thomas
He reads the letter.
"May 1844, Dear Mr. Cole. My highest ambition lies in excelling
in the art. I pursue it not as a source of gain or merely as amusement.
I am sensible of the unusual advantage I enjoy in being allowed
to look to you, Sir, as an instructor. Yours very respectfully,
I studied with Thomas Cole
in Catskill, directly across the river, and sketched from this very
hill, below where the house now stands, when I was19 or 20. My Father
reluctantly agreed to my studies with Thomas Cole paying him $600.00
for two years instruction. What a small commodity money is when
compared to the teachings and friendship of the greatest landscape
painter who ever lived. I have always believed that the only proof
that anything can be done is in the doing of it. Upon completion
of my studies with Thomas Cole I moved to New York, and painted.