The Voyage of the Icebergs: Frederic Edwin Church's Arctic Masterpiece

By Eleanor Jones Harvey

New Haven and London: Yale University Press


Reviewed by Russell A. Potter


Perhaps no image so crystallizes -- if one will pardon the pun -- the mid-nineteenth century's enduring obsession with the Arctic and its explorers as does Frederic Edwin Church's Icebergs. Church not only captured, in a single frame, the essence of the Arctic Sublime, but the variegated history of his stunning canvas closely parallels the rise and fall of the larger trans-Atlantic fascination with the "Frozen Regions" of which it is a part. Most strikingly, this enormously important canvas was, for more than a century, lost -- as lost as the crewmen of Sir John Franklin's vanished ships, in memory of whose deaths the broken mast in the painting's foreground was added by the painter as a silent but widely-recognized elegiac sign.

The origins of Church's own Arctic passion were entwined with the actual explorers whose search for Franklin in the 1850's was the subject of tremendous interest in both England and the United States, particularly with Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes. Dr. Hayes, who had sailed with the late Dr. Elisha Kent Kane on his second search for Franklin in 1853, was an amateur artist himself, as well as a pioneer photographer, and brought back sketches and paintings from his voyages which were to exercise a powerful influence on Church. Hayes then met Church through the American Geographical and Statistical Society, of which both were members; on one occasion, they attended a lecture from Dr. John Rae, discoverer of the first definite signs of Sir John Franklin's lost expedition. On the basis of their shared fascination, they later became close friends, collaborating on plans and sketches after Hayes's second Arctic voyage. Hayes's sketches and paintings of "Church Peak" -- an Arctic promontory he named for his friend -- served as the basis for Church's second-best known Arctic canvas, the ethereal yet majestic "Aurora Borealis." Finally, wishing to see icebergs for himself, Church booked passage on a northbound steamer with his old friend Louis Legrand Noble, together producing an account of their voyage under the title After Icebergs with a Painter, which appeared just in time to serve as advance publicity for Church's "great painting of the North" when it debuted in New York in 1861.

This fascinating story has been told before by Gerald L. Carr, whose book on Church's "Icebergs" was commissioned in 1979 by the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts. Carr contributes an essay to Harvey's new book, but it is not much more than a postscript to his earlier account; the main purpose of this new book, we are told, is to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Dallas Museum's acquisition of Church's masterpiece, and tell its story from the moment of its rediscovery in 1979. The story has all the makings of an international thriller, with art historians flying back and forth across the Atlantic, searching old real estate listings and auction records for any trace of a painting which, at 64 x 112 inches and nearly five hundred pounds unframed, would seem rather difficult to lose.

Eleanor Jones Harvey recounts the search for and discovery of the painting in considerable detail, and the story's intrinsic drama will have readers on the edge of their seats. Yet perhaps because she is anxious not to offend any of the parties, she leaves unresolved the question of who should actually receive credit for rescuing Church's canvas from oblivion. The art historian Sandra Feldman, reading over letters and accounts of the painting's showings in England, had narrowed the field of potential buyers to three, among whom one man, Edward William Watkin, seemed to her the likeliest suspect. A railway magnate who helped back what later became the Canadian Pacific route across Canada, he once compared this undertaking to a 'Northwest Passage by land.' Indeed, while traveling to America to oversee his interests, he encountered some icebergs and was moved to describe them at some length in his journal.

Feldman, having uncovered this entry, felt certain that Watkin was her man. She traced the estate records for all of his houses, and telephoned Mair Baulch, at the time the matron at Watkins's former country house in Manchester, "Rose Hill," which was then serving as a home for delinquent boys. Here is where the story begins to strain the reader's credulity; Harvey notes that Baulch told Feldman quite plainly that the "Icebergs" was not at Rose Hill. And yet, coincidentally, just over a year later, Baulch"discovered" the painting on a little-used third-floor landing, and wrote to the Art Institute of Chicago to see if there was "any interest" in it. Like the holder of a winning lottery ticket who emerges from hiding just before the expiration of the prize, one has to imagine that Ms. Baulch had been tipped off by Feldman's inquiry as to the painting's potential value, and had bided her time until other issues -- in this case, her desire to raise a few thousand pounds to help purchase a small cottage for her young charges -- moved her to action.

As it turned out, Ms. Baulch had set her sights too low -- she could well have asked for another mansion -- as "The Icebergs" sold at auction at Sotheby's for 2.5 million dollars, at that time a record for any work of art by an American painter, more than double the previous high water mark. The sale electrified the art world, and at once resuscitated the reputation of the entire Hudson River school, creating a ripple effect that dramatically increased the prices realized at auction for all American paintings. Hardly less stunning is that the buyers, an unidentified couple who must have had some connection with the Dallas area, quickly announced plans to loan the painting to the Dallas Museum, upgrading the loan to an outright gift on the occasion of its unveiling. All of this is celebrated in Harvey's account, and rarely have any anonymous donors received such paeans of praise for a single gift, albeit an extraordinary one. It grates a bit, however, that rather than an assessment of the impact of the rediscovery of "Icebergs" on the historical or cultural histories of which it is such an important part, what we get is more an extended celebration of the monetary magnanimity and local boosterism of these nameless scions of the Dallas art world.

But why was it "Icebergs" which set this stunning record? Was it just one of those overreaching spectacles of capitalistic excess, like the infamous Van Gogh sunflower which was purchased at a record price, only to be whisked off to a warehouse for cold storage? Was it really such a significant painting, and Church such an important painter, that its astonishing price was merited? These questions go unaddressed in Harvey's account, the assumption being I suppose that such a remarkable sum of money speaks somehow for itself -- but it doesn't. Church is praised as much for his marketing savvy as for his painterly skill, praise which though true seems to me beside the point; we don't usually admire artists for their salesmanship, and even seem to prefer them poor and starving before their rescue -- almost always posthumous -- from oblivion.

The importance of Church, not simply as one of the most technically and aesthetically able painters of his generation and school, but as a man who fully embodied the spectacularity and sensation of the mid-nineteenth century's ripened romanticism, is not spoken for here -- but really, it is no matter. The sheer visual power of his painting remains as great as ever, and has never been so richly on display as it is in this magnificent volume, which almost makes one's eyes ache as one turns the glossy pages. Gerald Carr's original study, though far more wide-reaching, was illustrated almost entirely with black-and-white halftones, something which really ought to be a deadly sin in the case of a work such as "Icebergs." In this new volume, however, the sin is more than atoned for, as we are treated to no fewer than eight full-color images of Church's entire painting, along with six stunning detailed images of portions of the canvas. Not only that, but Church's original studies for the painting, beginning with those he made off the coast of Newfoundland on his voyage with Noble, are the subject of a series of nearly a dozen large, full-color plates, each of which casts an entirely new light on the evolution of Church's masterwork.

Yet one of my personal favorite images in this book is really a mere snapshot -- and yet it haunts with all the force of a spectral sea-captain on bow of an eternally ice-bound ship. It shows Mair Baulch standing with "Icebergs" previous to any professional cleaning, outside on the grounds of Rose Hill. The majestic blues and greens are dimmed to grey, and the stunning red stone carried by the rightmost berg is naught but a dull pebble -- and yet here, more than in any other image, are the historical richness and tragic loss blended together into a complex whole. Like the chromolithograph which, for more than a century, was the only hint we had of the magnificence that was lost, this snapshot crystallizes the "voyage of the Icebergs," and makes us grateful for whatever fortunate constellation of the heavens permitted their return.