Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861

Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs, 1861


Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) 
The Icebergs, 1861
Oil on canvas, 64½ x 112½ inches
Collection Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, TX, gift of Norma and Lamar Hunt, 1979.28

Church painted the varied landscapes on the American continent, merging in his visions of the spectacular natural wonders an artistic sensibility and keen interest in science. While in South America, he spent a few months in Colombia and Ecuador, went six hundred miles up the Magdalena River, and traveled on a mule to see volcanoes in the Andes. By 1861, he was one of the most famous painters in America. His painting of Niagara Falls, exhibited in 1857, was so popular that it was exhibited alone in his dealer’s gallery. His The Heart of the Andes (1859), exhibited to large crowds first in London and then in New York and Boston, distilled in one painting the varied geographic, climatic, and botanic wonders that he experienced while in South America.

At the height of Arctic exploration, Church, fascinated by accounts of intrepid explorers braving the treacherous and icy waters, journeyed to see the great icebergs himself off Labrador and Newfoundland. He exhibited his painting from the trip, The Icebergs, in New York on April 24, 1861, stunning audiences with his sublime vision of the arctic landscape. The broken mast featured prominently in the foreground references British explorer Sir John Franklin, who perished along with his crew during his 1845 expedition to chart and navigate an unexplored section of the Northwest Passage in the Canadian Arctic. The HMS Terror and HMS Erebus became trapped in the ice off King William Island. The broken mast in The Icebergs signals the insignificant powers of humanity in the face of nature’s most awesome manifestation. The mast was not originally included in the painting, but was added around 1862 after the painting’s first exhibition and before traveling to London.

By the time The Icebergs was completed and ready for public exhibition, in 1861, the United States had descended into Civil War. The Civil War began on April 12, 1860 when Fort Sumter was bombarded by General Beauregard, commander of the Confederate Army. President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers to serve for three years in the U.S. Army, and by July, 30,000 recruits were under the command of Winfield Scott. Church responded to the national strife, renaming the painting The North—Church’s Picture of Icebergs, thus signaling his political stance. Church allocated all exhibition fees to a fund established to support soldiers’ dependents.

In its stunningly sublime composition, with political and philosophical dimensions, Church’s Icebergs recalls the work of Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic landscape artist who was a major influence of the Hudson River School artists. Friedrich’s The Sea of Ice (also called The Wreck of Hope) of 1823–24, now in the Kunsthalle Hamburg in Germany, was a great inspiration for American artists who explored the “Arctic Sublime”, including Church and William Bradford. The Sea of Ice features the shipwrecked HMS Griper, one of two ships that took part in William Edward Parry’s expeditions to the North Pole in 1819–1820 and 1824. The vessel is swallowed by the massive piled ice sheets, a somber and foreboding vision of Nature’s might, as well as a warning against humankind’s aspirations and follies.