Russ’s Art Blog: Frederic Edwin Church, The Icebergs

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This is Frederic Edwin Church’s The Icebergs (1861. Oil on canvas, 64-1/2″ x 112-1/2″, large size here), and for most of the people who read this blog (anyone? anyone at all?) you may be reminded of Dan Simmon’s recent book The Terror.

Rightly so, as both were influenced (or actually, about, in the case of the book) by the ill-fated Franklin expedition. Though the painting itself is not directly about the lost Franklin expedition (ok, go read about it here, I’ll wait…), Church certainly had it in mind when he painted the picture.

Unlike most of the images I’ve featured here, this one doesn’t have the impact of having an actual person or character in it.  But what it lacks in an actual character it more than makes up for in the inference that people have been here, and seem to have met an untimely end.

In many images of the colder areas of the world, the ice and surrounding terrain are simply part of the landscape, and in fact Church does that here as well in the top left side of the image.  He uses warmer colors to show the area at sunset, and, even in the apparent cold, there’s a warmth here in his palette choices.  The work is soft, almost inviting.

As you work your way down and to the right, any feelings of warmth or comfort give way to darkness, and a strong sense of foreboding.  Church’s hues change radically from warm to cool, the harsh, alien blue of the ice tossing out whatever softness existed above it.

Church also used detail work and contrast to his advantage, much in the same ways he used color.  The loose, soft brush strokes of the easy afternoon above give way to the sharp, high detail of the foreground.  The ice becomes sharp and imposing, the soft waves become hard, as you are lulled from the calm waves to the death on the ice.

The seemingly forgotten mast in the lower right is more the icing (sorry, had to be said) on the cake.  It’s not a forceful detail, it’s a small piece of a massive work (almost 10 feet wide), but your attention goes right to it.  This is the lost expedition, a tiny bit left within a humongous nature.

What I like most about this piece is that it tells you everything without bashing you in the face with it. Church used colors, contrast and minor details to create a very dramatic piece.  It’s up to the viewer to decide how harsh it is really, whether it’s the horror of the expedition’s destruction, or perhaps the peace of the men within after their fall.

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