Charles Petzold

1859 Art: Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes”

April 27, 2009
New York, N.Y.

On April 27, 1859 — 150 years ago today — Frederic Edwin Church's mammoth landscape painting The Heart of the Andes went on display in a private showing in Lyric Hall at 765 Broadway in New York City. The painting was then moved back to the Studio Building (West Tenth Streeth between Fifth and Sixth Avenues) where Church had painted the work, and it opened to the public on April 29.

Over the next three weeks, over 12,000 people paid 25¢ apiece to see the The Heart of the Andes. The painting was mounted in a large recessed dark walnut frame, and surrounded with dark curtains to mask extraneous light, making it seem almost as if it were a window into a world far from West Tenth Street. Some viewers used opera glasses to bring details of the painting into closer view, fascinated by the wealth of detail and precision from the snow-capped mountains in the distance to the steamy vegetation in the foreground. Two effusive pamphlets about the painting were available for purchase, written by friends of Church.

Following its New York City triumph, The Heart of the Andes then toured Europe, and came back to the United States for trips to Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinatti, Chicago, and St. Louis, where the 26-year old Samuel Clemens saw it three times, and gushed in a letter:

By this time The Heart of the Andes had been sold for $10,000, at that time the highest amount ever paid for a work by a living American artist. Frederic Church's painting seemed to herald a new age of American art that would incorporate accurate observations of the natural world, and scientific precision in rendering that world, uniting art and science in a powerful spiritual synthesis.

Web conventions mandate that I now drop in an img tag so you can see The Heart of the Andes without moving a muscle, like so:

<img src="" />

But I just can't do it. You will need to move a muscle to see The Heart of the Andes. The painting is 10 feet wide and 5½ feet tall, so even a moderately large JPEG provides only a feeble approximation of the actual experience. You may as well listen to a Mahler symphony played on a kazoo, or watch Citizen Kane on a TV set.

Fortunately The Heart of the Andes isn't hidden in a private collection or tucked away in some obscure museum. It's part of the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City (a museum that Church helped found in 1870), and currently on display with eight other large American landscapes in the newly renovated Robert Lehman Wing, straight back on the first floor.

Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900) was born to a well-to-do family in Hartford, Connecticut, and at the age of 18 became one of the rare students of the founder of the Hudson River School of painting, Thomas Cole (1801 – 1848), whose influence can be discerned throughout Church's career.

The second most powerful influence on Church was not a painter at all but a famous German naturalist and popularizer of science, Alexander von Humboldt (1769 – 1859). Humboldt's early desires to study geology in Europe were thwarted by the Napoleonic Wars, so he instead journeyed to South America, which he explored for five years from 1799 to 1804, performing scientific experiments, making maps, documenting weather conditions, sketching the geology and wildlife, and almost — but not quite — making it to the summit of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador, at the time believed to be the tallest mountain in the world.

Humboldt spent much of the rest of his life writing, including compiling the data he had accumulated from his years in South America into a multi-volume treatise, some of which was published in seven volumes in an English translation as Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent During the Years 1799 – 1804. Even more ambitious was Humboldt's all-encompassing description of the universe and the earth in five volumes called Kosmos. Published in German beginning in 1845, Kosmos was soon translated into many other languages, becoming one of the most popular and influential science books of its time.

It was Humboldt's Personal Narrative that got the young Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) excited about exploring faraway exotic lands. That book together with John Herschel's Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy "stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science." (Darwin, Autobiography, ch. 2) This enthusiasm led directly to Darwin being invited to serve as unpaid naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. At the age of 22, he set sail on a five-year life-changing voyage around the world, including much time in South America. "I never experienced such intense delight," Darwin wrote back home. "I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him." (quoted in Gould)

Frederic Church was entranced by both Personal Narrative and Humboldt's Kosmos, published in an English translation as Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe beginning in 1849. Humboldt's synthesis of geology, botony, and astronomy presented a vision of terrestrial and celestrial realms that revealed both the diversity of nature, and the unity that bound all things. On the first page of the preface, Humboldt wrote,

In language that combines the spiritual and the scientific, Humboldt relates this intellectual quest to an optimistic humanist progress towards increasing knowledge and richness of life:

Had Humboldt been an Englishman, Cosmos would have been a work of Natural Theology, demonstrating the existence, wisdom, and goodness of God as evidenced by the design of His creation. But despite the extremely suggestive language that permeates Cosmos, the book never actually mentions God. (See Nicholas A. Rupke's Introduction to the Johns Hopkins University Press reprint, pgs. xxiii ff.) This little problem was bothersome to some early English critics of the book, who interpreted this omission as evidence of atheism or Hegelian pantheism. Humboldt's use of the "first impulse" as a substitute for "God" might indicate tendencies towards Enlightenment Deism, yet at times Humboldt sounds almost animist:

To Americans, the theology of Cosmos could be interpreted as akin to Transcendentalism. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a big fan of Humboldt, who he described as "one of the wonders of the world, like Aristotle, like Julius Caesar ... who appear from time to time, as if to show us the possibilities of the human mind — a universal man...." (quoted in Bunkśe) Humboldt's quest could even be interpreted in terms of Manifest Destiny.

In the second volume of Kosmos, Humboldt examined human perceptions of nature, and "the ancient bond which unites natural science with poetry and artistic feeling." (quoted in Novak, 61) He even addressed himself directly to the landscape painter, who has the highest responsibility in the artistic and scientific representation of nature. Humboldt suggests that artists make sketches in the field directly from nature, and turn them into composite paintings back in the studio. He noted that the southern regions of the world were virgin territory to artists.

The mention of the Mediterranean indicates Humboldt was addressing himself to European artists, but Church heard the call regardless:

Already Americans were exploring South American for scientific and commercial purposes, and in 1853, Frederic Church made his first of two trips into the northwest part of the continent, areas now occupied by Colombia and Ecuador. From that 1853 trip came several paintings, most notably The Andes of Ecuador (1855), 6 feet wide, 4 feet in height, with jagged mountains surrounding a flat plain, and in the center of the canvas a rising sun glowing with Turneresque shimmer.

But there is also a human presence in The Andes of Ecuador, and as in many of Church's paintings, the people seem swamped by their surroundings, humble visitors to the terrain rather than an integral part of nature. In the far left corner a wooden cross has been erected between two palm trees, attended by two worshippers, one standing and the other kneeling. After noticing the cross, the viewer then perhaps notices that the sun forms the apex of another cross of light that stretches across the horizon and cuts a vertical swarth down the center of the canvas.

Although Church's expedition to South American had invigorated his work, he did not restrict himself to those landscapes. One of Church's most dramatic and well-known paintings is Niagara (1857), a unique view of the falls that brings the viewer very low, as if we're hovering over the water, with only a thin sliver of visible land, and a rainbow like a meteor skimming in from the left.

Church was also experimenting with size and proportions. Most landscape paintings have an aspect ratio — the ratio of the width of the painting to its height — of about 3:2. But Niagara exceeds a 2:1 aspect ratio, with a 7½ foot width and a height of 3½ feet.

In 1857, Church voyaged to South America again, this time deliberately to get a closer view of Chimborazo, the mountain that Humboldt had climbed. He made many sketches and botanical studies, and by June of that year a concept for a large painting has crystallized in his mind. On his return to America, Church painted several works but it wasn't until he took up residence in the new Studio Building at 15 West Tenth Street in January 1858 that he really began work on the painting that was to become The Heart of the Andes, with an aspect ratio almost as extreme as Niagara and dimensions several feet larger.

There is no place on earth you could see such a scene as presented in The Heart of the Andes, yet every part of it is based on Church's accurate observations and depictions, carefully arranged to present the widest possible diversity. From this one vantage point we see geographies as various as any throughout the world. In the distance to the left are the snowy peaks of Chimborazo; in the center of the painting a more temperate zone is home to a hamlet and church on a calm lake, leading into a vigorous little waterfall. The bottom foreground of the painting is perhaps the most amazing part — steamy tropics with an abundance of vegetation and animal life rendered in meticulous detail.

If you visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a crowded weekend you can still get a little sense of the excitement that accompanied the first viewings of The Heart of the Andes 150 years ago. People still find much pleasure in their personal scientific explorations of Church's South American rain forest, discovering birds and butterflies, and squealing with delight when they spot Church's name and the year 1859 carved into the bark of a tree.

As in many of Church's paintings, there is also a spiritual presence and a human presence in The Heart of the Andes. A little church sits in the temperate zone of the painting, and much more in the foreground a little path leads to a wooden cross mounted on a stone base. Is it a grave? No, it's too isolated for a grave, too far from the church. It is instead a pilgrimage cross, and here's how Theodore Winthrop described it in a pamphlet prepared for the first exhibition of the painting:

To Frederic Church, the scientific quest, the artistic quest, and the religious quest were one and the same.

In the first New York exhibition of The Heart of the Andes, Church would sometimes hide behind the curtains and watch the people come to see his painting, and this was how he spotted Isabel Carnes, the young woman who was to become his wife. With money earned from The Heart of the Andes, Church purchased a cottage for himself and Isabel in Hudson, New York, a scenic area in the Hudson River Valley with a view of the Catskill Mountains, and it was there he built his mansion, Olana, which is now a New York State Historic Site.

Church had hoped that when The Heart of the Andes went to Europe, Alexander von Humboldt would get a chance to see his ideas about science and art encapsulated in Church's large painting. But Humboldt died at the age of 89 on May 6, 1859, just one week after the painting had gone on public display in New York City.

Humboldt would experience a second death later that year — and by extension, the entire metaphysical conception of The Heart of the Andes would be called into question — with the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species on November 24, 1859. In Darwin's conception of natural selection, nature isn't an overall unity driven by internal forces, but a competition for survival based on adaptation to external conditions through random variations.

Design was illusory. Any harmony perceived in the world was instead a barely stabalized balance, and Church struggled with the ramifications of Darwin's discoveries for much the rest of his life.

In 1867 through 1869, Church travelled through Europe and the Near East, spending much time in the Holy Land, perhaps "his last effort to resolve post-Darwinian science with his pre-Darwinian world view." (Davis, 80) Church painted a dramatic Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives (1870) — 7 feet wide and 4½ feet high — that provides a sense of the vision that triggered George Bertram's religious experience in Anthony Trollope's novel The Bertrams, published just a month before the debut of The Heart of the Andes.

Church's fame gradually declined from the peak he reached in 1859. He died in 1900, a year after his wife. The Heart of the Andes was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1909, but Church's reputation wasn't resurrected until the 1960s.

When we look at The Heart of the Andes today, we can see much of what those first viewers saw 150 years ago: We sense the grandeur of the natural world, the sublime peace of the quiet village in the shadow of towering mountains, the excitement of the wide range of geographical environments and teeming life. Yet we understand — intellectually, at least, if not always emotionally — that the apparent harmony of Church's microcosmic universe is merely an illusion, that beneath the surface there is struggle and competition, survival and death.

The big difference between those first viewers and ourselves comes when our eyes wander up the little path to the pilgrimage cross. We don't see the cross as a symbol of God's presence in this magnificent landscape. We see instead a symbol of Man's presence — and an attempt, but ultimately an inadequate attempt, to understand the mysteries of existence.


Avery, Kevin J., Church's Great Picture: The Heart of the Andes, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993.

Avery, Kevin J., "The Heart of the Andes Exhibited: Frederic E. Church's Window on the Equatorial World," American Art Journal, Vol. 18, No. 1 (Winter, 1986), pp. 52-72. JSTOR.

Bunkśe, Edmunds V., "Humboldt and an Aesthetic Tradition in Geography," Geographical Review, Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 127-146. JSTOR.

Davis, John, "Frederic Church's 'Sacred Geography'." Smithsonian Studies in American Art, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Spring, 1987), pp. 79-96. JSTOR.

Gardner, Albert Ten Eyck, "Scientific Sources of the Full-Length Landscape: 1850," The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, New Series, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Oct., 1945), pp. 59-65. JSTOR.

Gerdts, William, The Worlds of Frederic Edwin Church.

Gould, Stephen Jay, "Church, Humboldt, and Darwin: The Tension and Harmony of Art and Science" in Franklin Kelly, Frederic Edwin Church (see below), pp. 94-107. Reprinted in William H. Beezley and Linda A. Curcio-Nagy, eds., Latin American Popular Culture: An Introduction (Scholary Resources, 2000) pp. 27-44. Somewhat altered and republished as "Art Meets Science in The Heart of the Andes: Church Paints, Humboldt Dies, Darwin Writes, and Nature Blinks in the Fateful Year of 1859" in Gould's I Have Landed (Harmony Books, 2002), pp. 90-109.

Howat, John, Frederic Church, Yale University Press, 2005.

Humboldt, Alexander von, Cosmos: A Sketch of the Physical Description of the Universe, Volume 1, Harper & Row, 1850; Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Huntington, David C., The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era, George Braziller, 1966.

Kelly, Franklin, with Stephen J. Gould, James Anthony Ryan, and Debora Rindge, Frederic Edwin Church, National Gallery of Art / Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

Mullenneaux, Lisa, Heart of the Andes: In the Footsteps of Frederic Church.

Novak, Barbara, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875, 3rd edition, Oxford University Press, 2007.

Winthrop, Theodore, A Companion to The Heart of the Andes, D. Appleton, 1859. Reprinted by Olana Gallery, 1977.

Earlier Entries in This Series

1859 Books: “Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám” (1/15/2009)

1859 Books: George Eliot’s “Adam Bede” (2/1/2009)

1859 Books: John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” (2/26/2009)

1859 Books: Anthony Trollope’s “The Bertrams” (3/29/2009)