Previous visitors to the Scottish National Gallery will be familiar with Frederic Church’s Niagara Falls from the American Side, the only major work by this American artist featured in an European gallery. Foam scuds across an icy blue expanse. A beam of sunlight plunges into oblivion. The humans overlooking the scene are crushed into insignificance by the force of nature which dominates the huge canvas.
Frederic Church’s fame rested on monumental landscapes like this one, which earned him a formidable reputation in his own lifetime. The National Gallery’s stellar gathering of the artist’s smaller oil paintings acts as a complement to Church’s large-scale vision, yet it is also a treasure in its own right. Bringing together impressions from Church’s travels (destinations included Jamaica, Austria and Mexico) with polished works which hardly deserve the title of “sketches”, it offers an invaluable, intimate look at the artistic process. There isn’t a superfluous piece in the (admittedly small) room, and each one rewards scrutiny.
With his fixation on structure – his landscapes were often composites of several views – Church exerted a paradoxical mastery over a wilderness whose unimaginable power he emphasised above all. There are strong echoes in his landscapes of the 19th century faith in exploration and natural science. Like many of his compatriots, Church was inspired by the Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, who promoted an interconnected view of nature and man’s small but significant place in it. Humboldt’s interest in the Poles influenced Church’s voyage to the Arctic, and the plein air sketches of icebergs he produced there are some of the best pieces on display, all chilling beauty and deceptively fiery lighting.
For a period after his death in 1900, Church was rather unfashionable - too fiddly, too grandiose for modern tastes - but the small scale of this exhibition makes it impossible not to admire his technical and visual triumphs. Up close, landscapes dissolve into carefully-placed smudges, and the extent of his draughtmanship can be appreciated. Like Church’s sketches themselves, this is a minute but perfectly-conceived exhibition, well-deserving of a closer look.