For its first winter exhibition, Olana, the 19th-century home of Frederic Church, has chosen a wintry subject: "Chasing Icebergs: Art and a Disappearing Landscape." In 1859, Church traveled by ship to "Iceberg Alley" between Labrador and Newfoundland, painting and sketching mounds of ice. (He was the first American artist to depict this landscape.) But if you think about it, painting an iceberg isn't easy. It's basically a big misshapen ice cube, bending light in unpredictable directions. And how do you represent its size, without adding a tiny little person to show scale? "This idea of capturing the unpaintable shows up again and again in Frederic Church's career," explains Allegra Davis, associate curator at Olana. His early subarctic studies resemble the surrealist paintings of Max Ernst. For a month, Church labored with graphite, pen and ink, and gouache—while battling seasickness—to capture the singular scenery.
Not only should the iceberg look realistic, but it must also be awe-inspiring. For the final work, Church combined several smaller ice mountains into an imaginary mega-iceberg. At his studio in New York City, Church painted The Icebergs, an epic image measuring 5.4 by 9.4 feet.
Like his contemporary P. T. Barnum, Church was adept at the art of pulling in a crowd. He would show one painting at a time, with thick velvet curtains and dramatic lighting. Patrons, who each paid 25 cents, were invited to bring opera glasses to scrutinize the visionary tableau. The painting moved from city to city, like a traveling theater troupe. In his time, Church was America's preeminent artist.
But as he unveiled The Icebergs, Church ran into bad luck. The Civil War had just begun, and the public wasn't in the mood for exotic diversions. Showing his sympathy for the Union side, Church retitled his painting The North. After two years of touring, the picture was still unsold, so Church hightailed it to London. Because of England's dependence on cotton to supply its textile mills, many rich art patrons supported the American South. Church returned to the original title and added a small shipwreck, symbolizing the English Arctic expedition led by Sir John Franklin, which disappeared in 1847.
The Icebergs is, improbably, at the Dallas Museum of Art, not Olana. But this show includes a smaller iceberg canvas, Steamboat in Northern Waters, and a chromolithograph of the large painting, retouched with paint—perhaps by Church himself.
A lot has changed since 1859. Icebergs, once a symbol of majestic power, now represent fragility. "Icebergs have become a symbol of the melting Arctic and the ticking clock on the planet," Davis observes. Four pieces by contemporary artists in the show function as a modern commentary on Church's works. In Blue Ebb, a sculpture by Kambui Olujimi, a tiny iceberg perches precariously inside an hourglass.
On his subarctic ship, Church traveled with Anglican missionaries, who stopped off at native communities to spread the gospel. In fact, the artist received a copy of the Book of Genesis translated into Mi'kmaq, a local language. Though he later gave away this book, the curators hunted down a similar edition for this exhibit. (Everything else in "Chasing Icebergs" was taken from Olana's permanent collection.) At Olana, contemporary artist Mark Igloliorte draws on his Inuit heritage to produce a painting with a word from the Inuktitut language superimposed on an Arctic scene. Words like "Angiggak" perfectly fit the angular outlines of icebergs.