Expressing Ecosystems and Interdependence
Frederic Edwin Church journeyed to South America in 1853 and 1857. He was following in the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt, the leading naturalist of the generation before Charles Darwin. After his trips, he painted many landscapes to represent what he had seen during his travels. Chimborazo is one of these paintings. Chimborazo embodies Humboldt’s theory of the interdependence of natural systems. Church takes the viewer on a virtual trip through Ecuador, from the tropical rainforest (in the foreground of the painting) to the temperate grasslands (in the midground of the painting) to the frigid, ice-clad peak of Mount Chimborazo (in the background of the painting).
This work is an example of a composite landscape. Composite landscapes are landscape artworks in which the artist includes features from multiple views in the landscape. In composite landscapes, the artist never sees exactly what they painted.
Church used both observation and imagination to create this landscape painting. He was committed to scientific accuracy, but he was also committed to conveying his whole experience in Ecuador to the viewer. Instead of painting exactly what he had seen, Church painted a composite view of Mount Chimborazo and the area around it. He based his composite landscape on extensive field studies.
Expressing Plant Life
Church painted plants in the foreground with such detail that botanists today can identify many specific species. Sean Lahmeyer, The Huntington’s Plant Collections and Conservation Manager, offers the following:
“Church’s view of Chimborazo appears to depict an actual location: the village of Babahoyo in western Ecuador. Because the artist sketched the plants from life, botanists can compare them with the species that are known to grow there. The tall palms at the far right of the painting appear to be Syagrus sancona. Along the riverbank to the left, a crop of bananas or gingers are shaded by another palm, likely Phytelephas aeqatorialis, which was often used for this purpose. The bamboo growing behind the hut is Guadua angustifolia, a widely cultivated and important plant. And in the left foreground are the giant leaves of the aroid Xanthosoma.”
Use the interactive image below to look closely at the plants in this landscape.
Questions & Prompts
What details did you notice in the plants when you studied them up close? How do these details affect the way you view the landscape as a whole?
Do any of the close-ups seem to match the plant identifications that Sean provided? Which? What do you see that makes you believe it is a match?
Use Kew Gardens’ Plants of the World Online to research the plants that Sean has identified above. What new information can you learn? How does this new information change the way you view this landscape?
Compare Church’s incorporation of specific plants in a visual landscape with Mary Hunter Austin’s incorporation of specific plants in a literary landscape.
Multiple Views, One Landscape
Church was highly influenced by the naturalist von Humboldt. Von Humboldt’s scientific texts, and the images that accompanied them, were widely influential for generations of artists interested in creating landscapes of the natural world. Von Humboldt compared Mount Chimborazo to a work of art: it “appears to the observer,” he wrote, “like a cloud on the horizon; it stands out from the neighboring peaks; it looms above the entire Andes range just as that majestic dome [of St. Peter’s], Michelangelo’s work of genius, looms above the ancient monuments that surround Capitoline Hill.”
Compare Church’s Chimborazo with von Humboldt’s Le Chimborazo, vu depuis le plateau de Tapia (Chimborazo, seen from the Tapia plateau).
Questions & Prompts
Jump into von Humboldt’s landscape and choose a spot in the photograph to stand, sit, or lie down. What can you see from your place in the photograph? What can you hear? What can you smell? Taste? Touch?
Jump into Church’s landscape and choose a spot in the photograph to stand, sit, or lie down. What can you see from your place in the photograph? What can you hear? What can you smell? Taste? Touch?
Identify three similarities between the two artworks.
Identify three differences between the two artworks.
What can you learn about Mount Chimborazo from von Humboldt’s landscape? What can you learn about Mount Chimborazo from Church’s landscape?
What can you learn about life in Ecuador in the 19th century from von Humboldt’s landscape?
What can you learn about life in Ecuador in the 19th century from Church’s landscape?
Create a Composite Landscape
What is a place you have visited and that you remember well? Create a composite landscape. If you have photographs or other documentation from your trip, you might want to reference them to help you with the details. When creating your composite landscape, consider the following:
How will you use the elements of art [link: elements of art] in your landscape? How will your choices help your viewer see, hear, feel, touch, and taste the setting?
How will you use the principles of design [link: principles of design] in your landscape? How will your choices help your viewer know what is important in your landscape?
How did you feel when you were in this place? How can you help your viewers feel the same emotions while looking at your art?
How many creative liberties do you want to take in your landscape?
- Extension: Create a piece of writing about the place [link: land of little rain OR vignette paragraph specifically] about the place.
References and Resources
Avery, Kevin J. 2009. “Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900).” The Metropolitan Museum of Art. August 2009. https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chur/hd_chur.htm.
“Frederic Church’s Art.” n.d. Olana. Accessed January 31, 2022. https://www.olana.org/history/сhurchs-art/.
The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens. n.d. “Chimborazo.” Accessed January 31, 2022. https://www.huntington.org/chimborazo.
Kelly, Franklin, Stephen Jay Gould, James Anthony Ryan, and Debora Rindge. 1989. Frederic Edwin Church. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press.
“Voyage of Humboldt and Bonpland, Chimborazo Seen from the Tapia Plateau.” n.d. Vistas: Visual Culture in Spanish America, 1520-1820. Accessed January 31, 2022. https://vistasgallery.ace.fordham.edu/items/show/1926.