Dean Flower at Hudson Review:
Frederic Edwin Church, born in Hartford, Connecticut, is now generally regarded as America’s greatest landscape painter—either of his own time, 1826–1900, or any other—but he is not usually recognized as an innovator. He was the only pupil Thomas Cole was ever persuaded to accept and is usually understood as carrying forward if not epitomizing Cole’s vision, the one we like to identify with the Hudson River school. But it turns out, when you read far enough into Andrea Wulf’s new biography of the German explorer-scientist Alexander von Humboldt, that Cole was not Church’s master, either aesthetically or spiritually. Nor did Church espouse the usual Hudson River school teachings, like the Emersonian theme of Asher B. Durand’s Kindred Spirits, for example. Church’s real master was Humboldt, and he found his calling spelt out for him in Humboldt’s Cosmos, Volume 2 (1850):
He who, with a keen appreciation of the beauties of nature manifested in mountains, rivers, and forest glades, has himself traveled over the torrid zone [as Humboldt did in South America, 1799–1804], and seen the luxuriance and diversity of vegetation, not only on the cultivated sea-coasts, but on the declivities of the snow-crowned Andes . . . or in the primitive forests, amid the net-work of rivers lying between the Orinoco and the Amazon, can alone feel what an inexhaustible treasure remains still unopened by the landscape painter . . . ; and how all the spirited and admirable efforts already made in this portion of art fall far short of the magnitude of those riches of nature of which it may yet become possessed.