F. Edwin Church

(1876-1975)

About the Artist

Revealing the Life and Art of F. Edwin Church (1876-1975)  

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Intro

F. Edwin Church (1876-1975) lived to see nearly 100 years of American art history in the making. Church’s art reflected his steadfastness to stay true to his artistic origins rooted in the early twentieth century. He was notable for paintings of women which incorporated aesthetic elements of the Japanese art movement. However, his oeuvre was not limited to portraiture alone. Church’s palette also extended to impressionist landscapes, floral still life, genre, undersea paintings and sculpture.

 

In 2017, at the centennial mark for one of his favorite portraits, it was an appropriate time to rejuvenate the memory, almost lost, of the life and art of F. Edwin Church. “Charlotte,” the full-length, standing portrait of his eldest daughter, wearing a black dress with fur hat and muff, posed before the branches of a blossoming apple tree, was completed in 1917. The painting’s debut into society took place in the Vanderbilt Gallery of the Fine Arts Building in New York for the Allied Artists of America 5th Annual Exhibition in 1918. The painting shows a prime example of his unique use of the Japanese print theme incorporated as the backdrop, grounding his subjects in the Japanese art movement’s influence on American art in the early twentieth century. “Charlotte” was photographed by Peter A. Juley, and singled out over all other paintings in the exhibition for publication in the Sunday pictorial section of The New York Times.

The Artist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

F. Edwin Church, having lived just short of a century, was part of the changing tide of American art in New York in the first quarter of the 20th century. In step with his contemporaries, he attended the Art Students League and studied at the Académie Julien in Paris where he had a portrait accepted by the Salon in 1906. He was awarded the Clark Prize in 1916 by the National Academy of Design in New York for best figurative composition. His works exemplify the era, ranging from gilded-age portraits with Japanese influence, to impressionist landscapes and still lifes. F. Edwin Church also had the distinction of being one of only a handful of artists in the 1920’s to create undersea paintings. In 1927 he joined William Beebe, the famed marine biologist, on an expedition of the New York Zoological Society to Haiti where he viewed the reefs and undersea life firsthand using Beebe’s diving equipment.

However, F. Edwin Church is best remembered as a portrait artist. While he did take commissions for formal portraiture, it was the paintings of women and their fashions that allowed him to showcase his talent. He was skilled at creating translucent skin tones, and had mastered the techniques of depicting a variety of textured fabrics and sheer, transparent veils. The portraits he created engaged the viewer, often filling the canvas with dramatic presence. Botanical and bird motifs, used in many of the backgrounds, underscored his love and interest in Japanese prints.

By the time of his death in 1975, collective memory was quickly fading, and the identity of the twentieth-century Frederic Edwin Church was slowly and inevitably being suffocated beneath the shadow of fame and popularity surround­ing the work of the Hudson River School artist, Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900). In order to distinguish himself from the Hudson River artist, he signed his works F. Edwin Church, and was quick to point out to anyone who asked that there was no family relation. Another artist whose name also added to identity confusion was the respected artist and illustrator Frederick Stuart Church (1842-1924). While all three artists were known individually by art critics and collectors in the first half of the 20th century, the enigma surrounding F. Edwin Church’s identity began during his lifetime. In 1973, two portraits were offered at auction in New York City by Sotheby Parke Bernet which had been incorrectly attributed to the Hudson River artist. Ironically, a month prior, Sotheby’s Department of Japanese Works had arranged the sale of some items from F. Edwin Church’s private art collection.

 

Name, Family Background, and Early Education

F. Edwin Church was born in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, New York, October 25, 1876. The youngest of four sons, his name was given to him at birth by his parents Elihu Dwight Church (1836-1908) and Helen Victoria Cooke (1846-1896). Family names (Elihu, Austin and Charles) having been used up on the previous three sons, they were somewhat at a loss and so named their fourth, Frederic Edwin Church, after an artist of the era whom they admired. They could not have foreseen the effect this choice in name would have years into the future. A quiet, modest and unassuming individual of slight build, family and friends called him Fred.

Fred’s father was also an artist. As a young man E. Dwight Church, Sr. had studied drawing at the National Academy of Design and then taught drawing at the Common School of New York in the 1850’s. For a brief time he was an official artist for the Union Pacific Railroad, and he also painted scenes from his campaigns with New York’s 7th Regiment in the Civil War.

After the war, Fred’s father worked for the family business, Church & Dwight Company (manufacturers of Arm & Hammer Baking Soda). With less time to pursue his own art, he became an avid collector of art and rare books. E. Dwight Church is best remembered for his collection of rare Americana and English books, manuscripts, and maps which were purchased from his estate for the Huntington Library.

Fred’s earliest art instruction was most likely under the tutelage of his father. After graduating from Stevens Preparatory School in Hoboken, New Jersey, Fred studied architecture at Columbia University in New York in 1897 primarily to satisfy his parents. His late granddaughter, Mary S. Grothe, recalled that he often remarked “I was in the same class as Rockwell Kent, and neither of us graduated.” That same year he also enrolled in classes at the Art Students League. When he determined the practical aspects of the architect trade were not to his liking, he made the decision to follow his true passion, painting. Fred flourished under his instructors at the Art Students League. He studied figural painting with Kenyon Cox, whose class was one he particularly enjoyed. He also had classes with Frank Vincent Du Mond, and John Henry Twachtman whom he found “awe inspiring…and a bit tyrannical…(but) not lacking in humor.” During this time Fred did several botanical studies in watercolor influenced by those of Paul De Longpre who had lived in New York City and held an exhibition there in 1896.

When not attending school, Fred and Charles would visit their brother, Austin, who was overseeing operations for the family business in Trenton, Michigan, south of Detroit. Austin was also a talented painter and craftsman whose waterfowl paintings, duck decoys, and furniture pieces were much admired by the family. While there, Fred was reacquainted with Alice Slocum Nichols, a previous guest of the Church family on their summer farm in Middlesex, Connecticut. They married in Detroit in 1901 and their first child, Charlotte Dwight Church was born in December of 1902 while they lived in a rented house in New Rochelle, New York. Charles later married Alice’s sister, Charlotte Nichols in 1903. Close since childhood, the two brothers who had married the two sisters would remain nearly inseparable the rest of their lives. Eventually, they purchased property in New Rochelle at Davenport Neck and had a beautiful house built, designed by Stanford White where Fred kept a studio on the top floor.  Fred designed the gardens where he painted portraits of both Alice and young Charlotte. A second daughter, Elizabeth, was born in 1913, but she tragically died eight months after the birth of his third daughter, Nancy, in 1915. His son, Charlie, born in 1920, was named after his favorite brother.

Study in Paris and Early Exhibitions

In 1905, Fred, Alice and young Charlotte went to Paris. They lived in an apartment at 246 Boulevard Raspail, while Fred attended the Académie Julien and studied under Jean Paul Laurens. A portrait of his wife, noted in the catalogue as “Madame C…” was accepted to the Salon in 1906.

Returning to New York, Fred took a studio at 146 West 55th St. in the city. His first known exhibition record in New York was for the Annual Exhibition of Former Students of the Art Students League held at the National Arts Club in 1909. That same year he became a member of the Salmagundi Club and placed a work in their exhibition.  Over the next few years, other exhibitions followed at the National Academy of Design, The Corcoran, and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. By 1914 he had joined the Lyme Art Association and the McDowell Club of New York, as well as the New Rochelle Art Association and showed in their exhibitions that year.

Also in 1914, a new art society, the Allied Artists of America was formed. Charles Bittenger, a board member and lifelong friend, recommended Fred for membership. He was nominated in the first group of eleven men which included his friends Harry L. Hoffman and Everett Warner. Fred maintained an active role in the organization, serving on the exhibition committee for several years and was noted for hosting a meeting at his new studio in the Atelier Building. In total, he exhibited with the Allied Artists over a span of 25 years from the First Annual in 1914 to the 26th in 1939.

Other art societies Fred belonged to and showed with in his first decade of exhibiting were The New York Architectural League and The Society of Independent Artists. He also took part in the second Eastern Long Island Hospital benefit exhibit as well as several exhibitions at the Hoboken Public Library. During World War I, he painted camouflage and became a Second Lieutenant in the New York National Guard.

The Peacock Girl

In 1916, at the age of 38, Fred was awarded the Thomas B. Clarke Prize for the best figural composition by the National Academy of Design for his painting, “The Peacock Girl.” Fred drew upon his interest in Japanese prints to create a bold and colorful composition of a girl with red hair wearing a blue and green floral kimono-inspired dress with a wide obi sash, a peacock perched behind her with a wing outstretched in a protective posture. Her expression is direct. Gazing at the viewer, she stands confidently with her hand on her hip, but with a touch of modesty as her other hand shields her breast — testimony to the changing attitudes of youthful women in the flapper age. The New York Times and Harper’s Weekly both featured the painting in their pictorial sections.

After the National Academy of Design exhibition, the painting went on to be shown at the following institutions: Detroit Museum of Art, The Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio State University (College Art Association of America), the Art Institute of Chicago, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art in March of 1917, shortly followed by the 1st Annual Exhibition of the Duxbury Art Association in Massachusetts. It reappeared in 1921 at an exhibition of the Lyme Art Association and again in 1932 in Roslyn, New York (Long Island). The painting’s final public appearance was in 1975 at the retrospective for F. Edwin Church given by the Country Art Gallery in Locust Valley, Long Island. Tragically, “The Peacock Girl” was one among several paintings that were subsequently lost in a fire.

Japanese Print Collection

Japanese print collecting was a passion Fred developed while studying in Paris. Over the next 40 years he amassed an impressive library of reference books and a portfolio of fine, rare, and important Japanese prints. As his father before him, Fred joined the Grolier Club. There, he met and developed lifelong friendships with two avid print collectors, Howard Mansfield and Louis V. Ledoux. As they built their collections, Mansfield was instrumental for introductions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Fred lent a selection of 57 Hiroshige bird and flower prints in 1922. He also made loans to the Art Institute of Chicago on several occasions.

His comprehensive reference library was sold at Walpole Galleries in New York late in 1922. Several years later, the decision to build a house on Long Island, designed by the architect Harrie T. Lindeberg, prompted the dispersal of a portion of his print collection in 1928. A group of Hiroshige bird and flower prints were sold to Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who later gifted them to the Rhode Island School of Design. Another sale, encouraged by Howard Mansfield, was to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1929. Parke-Bernet Galleries (now Sotheby’s) handled the auction of the last large group of his beloved prints in 1946. Fred, as the authority, was asked to write the sale catalogue and it was edited by none other but his friend, Louis Ledoux.

Fred’s use of the Japanese print or screen as the background in several of his portraits is exceptional. A number of paintings show the direct influence of his love and thorough study of the prints. “Charlotte,” the portrait of his daughter, as noted previously, was one example. Others include "Girl in Yellow" who stands before a large peacock influenced by Hiroshige's print "Peacock and Peonies," while "Lady in Charlotte’s Dress" poses in haute couture before a stylized white crane and pine boughs, reminiscent of the bird in Hiroshige's "Crane and Wave" — both were prints that Fred had owned copies of over his lifetime of collecting. 

 

 

 

 

Exhibitions, Haiti and William Beebe (1921-1930)

Among the many places that he traveled in Europe, St. Jean de Luz, France was a place that Fred returned to time and again. In 1927, his one-man show at the Montross Gallery in New York highlighted many of his paintings from the region. Of particular note was a painting called “Pelote Basque at St Jean de Luz,” which he later gifted to the National Art Museum of Sport in 1967. A strong selection of portraits in the show included “The Bride,” his daughter Charlotte’s wedding portrait, and another of his brother, Charles, seated in his library next to a globe. The show was rounded out with still life paintings that showcased his skill at rendering flowers, including waterlilies in his own garden. Another was a blue and yellow macaw — one of many exotic birds he had kept as a pet.

His second accomplishment of 1927, was an exhibit with two other artists at Ainslie Gallery in New York after accompanying William Beebe on the 10th Expedition of the New York Zoological Society to Haiti. F. Edwin Church, Helen Damrosch Tee-Van (staff artist), and Vladimir Pierlieff were the artists that combined their talents to create a record of the undersea life, landscapes, and native people of the island. Fred had the opportunity to use the expedition's diving helmet to view tropical fish and coral reefs under water. From that experience he created several undersea paintings teeming with marine life.

On land, he produced landscapes full of movement and colorful village scenes. William Beebe wrote the forward for the catalogue, and the exhibit was covered both in Time magazine and The New York Times, which dubbed them “The Beebe Artists.” Fred and William Beebe maintained a longstanding friendship, both sharing the same studio building in New York and corresponding on matters of scientific study. Several years after the Haitian expedition, Beebe also gave Fred the opportunity to view the sea from his famous bathysphere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1930’s and Beyond

Now in his fifties, Fred enjoyed travel and the pursuit of his varied interests. His son Charlie developed a passion for sport fishing, prompting several trips to the Bahamas with brother Charles. Fred scoured the beaches for seashells that sometimes found their way into a painting. Alice accompanied Fred on cruises to locations in the Carribean and South America, where he sketched and painted. On a trip to the Malaysian Islands, he added several specimens to the butterfly collection he had started as a young man, mounting them carefully between glass. His interests in nature led him to become a life member of both The American Museum of Natural History and the New York Zoological Society. By the end of the decade, his children were married, and the first grandchildren began to arrive during World War II. Fred traveled to Taxco, Mexico in 1947 where he painted scenes of the Santa Prisca de Taxco Cathedral. He joined the Audubon Artists in 1946, and his final exhibition with them was in 1969 at the age of 87. 

The 1950’s and 60’s were marked by personal losses, first with the deaths of all three of his brothers, and then his sister-in-law, Charlotte. Fred was most deeply affected by the loss of Charles and undertook a memorial project, setting up the Charles T. Church Northshore Bird Sanctuary on part of their combined properties in Locust Valley. Also during this time, Fred donated two paintings to the Bailey Arboretum in Locust Valley. The first, a painting of his lily pond, in memory of Alice’s sister, Charlotte, and the second, a still life of peonies given in memory of his friend, the founder Frank Bailey.                                               

Fred and Alice suffered the loss of their daughter, Nancy, in 1969. A portrait Fred had done of her as a little girl and several other paintings were nearly lost when her bereaved husband abandoned their apartment and the contents were sent for auction to pay the back rent. Fred barely learned of it in time to make a mad dash across New York City to purchase his own work.

Fred and Alice celebrated their 70th wedding anniversary in 1971. Alice passed away two years later at the age of 94. Fred remained active, gardening, painting, and even playing a little tennis, his favorite sport. It was at this time that he took on his last great project and his only publicly known sculpture, a life sized great blue heron which stands in the bird sanctuary dedicated to his brother. 

His final show, a retrospective, was held by the Country Art Gallery in Locust Valley on March 9, 1975 as a benefit for the bird sanctuary. Treasured works of his lifetime were brought from his home for the exhibition. The event was covered in The Scene, a supplement to The Oyster Bay Guardian. In the March issue they wrote:

“Hundreds of people attended the one day exhibition…the walls of the gallery were covered with the classic paintings and portraits…Church stood greeting the guests…until the crowd became so large, he was ushered to a seat of honor, sheltered from the throngs...”

Fred died, peacefully in his sleep, three months later at the age of 98.

 

It is unfortunate that time has taken its toll, and some of the works of F. Edwin Church are gone or remain elusive. It would seem the fates were seemingly at work to vanquish not only his identity, but the very art itself. His located pieces, held primarily in private collections, have not been readily available for study. Because of this, his contribution as part of the embodiment of New York academic art training at the turn of the twentieth century has yet to be realized — a fate shared by many lessor known artists of his generation who, like Church, held a degree of prominence in their era. Fred lived his life with a steadfast dedication to his art, a life well lived, a life that should not be forgotten. The world would be diminished without his participation in the rich heritage of American art.