Turner to Monet
This is a devotional image, paying homage to science, Nature and God. Huge in its pictorial implications, the painting is nonetheless modest in size. South American landscape is one of the ‘prototype’ South American subjects the thirty-year-old Church composed before embarking on his magisterial Heart of the Andes 1859, which lifted him to first place among American artists.
In South American landscape Church responds to the renowned geographer Alexander Humboldt who identified the Andes as best portraying the separate ecologies that together made the global geography. Humboldt’s theory stemmed from an expedition to South America from 1799–1804, when he and his companions travelled from tropical jungle at sea level to mountains with permanent snow. Charles Darwin, travelling to South America thirty years later – with Humboldt’s writings in hand – found evidence that a parallel to Humboldt’s adaptive ecologies existed in biology. Church, visiting Colombia and Ecuador in 1853, deliberately set out to capture in art Humboldt’s geography of the cosmos.
Looking at the painting, it soon becomes apparent that this is not a landscape taken from one place. Rather, it is an assemblage of unlikely points of view which combine to overwhelming effect. Judged by photographic realism, the scene is frankly impossible; yet it is precisely because the painting lacks a governing perspective that the artist is able to suggest a scale that is measureless. Church’s concept is therefore unlike the panoramic landscapes by von Guérard, Bierstadt and Daubigny, which show the scope of a scene from a single vantage point.
Church painted for an audience whose aesthetic embraced the idea that the path to inspiration was through education. Within this approach, South American landscape expresses two types of ‘truth’. One is the truth of inspired imagination; another is the minutiae of description. Knowledgeable viewers in the mid-nineteenth century used opera glasses to study the details incorporated into the picture from Church’s many field drawings. Failing a handy magnifying glass, we still view the image as a composite of separate parts, each with its own scale and perspective.
Multiple possibilities offer themselves. Following the path of light from a bridge and waterfall gleaming in the chasm on the left, the eye is led vertically to a church poised on the peak of a mountain. The dark, sheer rugged country between those signs of human habitation conveys a subliminal message that the eye may travel where a human body cannot. Another kind of separation is implied on the other side, where a figure strolls towards us along a sun-striped path. A giant in comparison to the trees flanking the path, the figure is likewise strangely dissociated from the scene by a nonchalant disregard for what it portends. Behind is a tumescent mountain capped with snow, hazed and ruddy-coloured below, where it rises from a labyrinth of impassable mountains and bottomless clefts. This scene cannot conform to practicable travel, even tourism to the exotic: it is visionary.
The urgency of Church’s vision of natural ecology is relevant again in our time. The canvas suggests vast natural rhythms of an ongoing natural evolution on a scale that stretches human faith and imagination. Disjunctive landscape forms and abrupt conjunctions of tones and colours enforce incredible combinations, whereby a tropical palm is cheek-by-cheek with eternal snow. The idea of order seems interchangeable with cosmic disorder.