An intimate vastness

Special to The Times

Before you see the paintings in "Treasures From Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church" at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, you must make your way along several meandering paths through a beautifully cultivated landscape lush with plants gathered from around the world. The trip -- past four Neoclassical buildings, numerous fountains, statues and vases, with the San Gabriel Mountains in the background -- takes about 15 minutes. It's a terrific introduction to the exhibition's 23 landscapes, which Church painted from 1845 to 1891.

Many were made at his lavish home on 250 acres overlooking the Hudson River in upstate New York, named after an ancient Persian fortress' treasure house. But most of the virtuoso studies on paper, canvas and panel were painted by Church (1826-1900) on trips to Colombia, Ecuador, Jamaica, Mexico, England, France, Germany, Greece, Egypt and what are now Israel, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria.

The time it takes to get from the parking lot to the entrance of the Boone Gallery puts visitors in the right frame of mind to see Church's deliciously detailed images. It forces a pause between the fast pace of contemporary life and the slower, more contemplative tempo of Church's pictures of nature's splendors.

The earliest work in the show -- and the first one you see -- travels back to a time when photography had not yet made pictures of faraway places common.

Church painted "The Catskill Creek" (1845) when he was a 19-year-old student of Thomas Cole (1801-1848) and lived with him and his family in Catskill, N.Y. The little picture (12 by 16 inches) is a masterpiece of crystalline clarity, its complex composition made expansive by the unsentimental precision of Church's meticulous brushwork. His sharp eye for light is everywhere in evidence, creating a sensuous atmosphere that ranges from icy to warm. This nuance imbues the gem-like image with a type of serenity that heightens the senses and makes one's perceptual faculties feel particularly acute. It's quietly thrilling.

The next painting, "Horseshoe Falls, Niagara" (1857), does something no photograph from the time could: give viewers a sharply focused, stop-action close-up of the wide river rushing over the precipice. You feel Church's painting in your gut: It's as if terra firma has been yanked out from beneath your feet.

There's a clean, no-nonsense directness to Church's art, which sticks to the facts of visual reality. His science-inspired naturalism breaks away from his mentor's allegorical moralizing. For Church, reality was sufficiently spectacular, as stunning as anything delivered by today's action movies. Church was no stranger to entertainment. In 1858, he hung a second, larger version of "Horseshoe Falls" alone in a commercial gallery and charged visitors 25 cents to see it. At today's prices, that's about $5.

The next paintings play up the drama. Three are dazzling sunsets, with fiery skies ablaze with gorgeous oranges or gently tinted with delicate, icy pinks or animated by spectacular, storm-driven light shows. Others are sublime landscapes filled with towering mountains, verdant valleys, breathtaking vistas and picturesque twists and turns.

Despite the visual pyrotechnics made possible by Church's impressive technical facility, none of his paintings comes off as bombastic, overwrought or enamored of grandeur for its own sake. On the contrary, they are unusually, exquisitely intimate.

Making vast landscapes intimate -- not sweet or cutesy -- is no mean feat. Part of it results from the works' small scale and their status as studies. All but two, "El Khasne, Petra" and the Huntington's spectacular "Chimborazo" (1864), a peak in Ecuador thought at the time to be the world's highest mountain, are notebook-size. But even the large ones are approachable and engaging, user-friendly in ways that spectacle is not.

To understand why, look closely at "Tropical Vines and Trees, Jamaica" (1865). The 18-by-12-inch painting is a vertiginous wall of green, every one of its innumerable leaves, tendrils and blades of grass painted as if it is the most important thing in the world.

That idea -- that everything matters -- energizes all of the works in the exhibition, which was organized by Kevin J. Avery, curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Church's paintings are profoundly optimistic because at their heart is the conviction that the trouble and time it takes to get to know the world is always worth the effort. Wisdom builds slowly, even today, in a culture infatuated with instant gratification.


'Treasures From Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church'

Where: Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens, 1151 Oxford Road, San Marino

When: Noon to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; call for holiday hours.

Ends: Jan. 3

Price: $15

Contact: (626) 405-2100;

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