The Icebergs was the first large and definitive painting of the arctic regions in the nineteenth century. Frederic Church’s painting presents the arctic as a place of breathtaking natural beauty, with seductive colors and glowing light. Varying shades of blue, green, white, and rose run throughout the landscape. Church also pays attention to scientific details in his painting as the blue veins in the iceberg on the left represent the melting and refreezing of water. The broken mast in the foreground provides some notion of scale, and also reminds viewers of the dangers of the arctic landscape.
In 1859, Church chartered an expedition to St. Johns, Newfoundland where he spent several weeks sketching the forms and colors of icebergs in the arctic environment. Upon his return from the trip north, Church used his sketches to create this large-scale painting. The final painting was shown both in New York City and Boston, under the title The North—Church’s Picture of Icebergs, where visitors paid twenty-five cents to enter the exhibition, proceeds of which benefited the Union’s Patriotic Fund. The work did not sell in America, which was at the outset of Civil War, but ended up in England were it was essentially forgotten until the 1970s. In 1979, The Icebergs sold at Sotheby’s for a price that broke all pre-existing records for any American painting sold at auction.
The Icebergs was the first large and definitive painting of the arctic regions in the nineteenth century. Frederic Church’s painting represents the arctic as a place of breathtaking natural beauty, with seductive colors and glowing light. However, the broken mast in the foreground also reminds viewers of the dangers of the arctic landscape.
In 1859, Church chartered an expedition to St. Johns, Newfoundland. He spent several weeks on a sixty-five ton schooner boat called Integrity and even on a smaller row boat, which allowed him a closer view and experience of the icebergs. Church spent this time sketching the forms and colors of icebergs in the arctic landscape.
After returning to his studio in the United States, Church was able to use his many sketches to create the large-scale painting of icebergs. This process took him less than six months, and the painting was first exhibited in 1861. The Icebergs was shown both in New York City and Boston, where visitors paid twenty-five cents to enter the exhibition space where they received a broadsheet explaining the painting. A comment in the New York Independent newspaper from May 2, 1861 characterizes the experience of the Reverend Theodore L. Cuyler when he saw The Icebergs at its debut in New York: “Entering the room we found the whole end of the apartment filled with a huge frame of dark wood – carved like a cabinet and draped with crimson. Through this carved wood-work, as through an open window, we looked at once, nearly two thousand miles away – to Labrador!”
While on view in the U.S., Church’s painting was titled The North—Church’s Picture of Icebergs and all exhibition proceeds were intended to benefit the Union’s Patriotic Fund (today’s Red Cross). The painting did not sell in U.S., and instead was shipped to London for exhibition where Church had a strong following. In deference to England’s support of the Confederate side of the Civil War, Church changed the title from The North to The Icebergs. Between its exhibition in the U.S. and England, Church added the broken mast in the foreground of the painting. The mast may refer to Sir Franklin’s expedition to the Northwest Passage which was lost in the 1847, but it also served to establish scale in the painting. Several preliminary studies of the painting that include the mast as well as a full-scale boat indicate that Church struggled with scale while working on The Icebergs.
The work was well-received in England and soon purchased by Sir Edward William Watkin, a railroad magnate and member of Parliament. After its purchase, it changed hands several times before being acquired by the Social Services Committee of the City of Manchester in 1921. Afterwards, the painting was essentially forgotten and only rediscovered in the 1970s by Mair Baulch, a matron of a juvenile detention facility for boys in Manchester, England. In 1978, Baulch brought the painting into public view in hopes of raising money to purchase a run-down piece of land for the boys’ recreation. In 1979, The Icebergs sold at Sotheby’s for a price that broke all pre-existing record for any American painting sold at auction. It was immediately donated to the Dallas Museum of Art by an anonymous benefactor, revealed in 2010 to be the Hunt family of Dallas.
Marketing played an important role in the success of many nineteenth century American artists’ careers, including Church’s. By mid-century the American Art-Union and the National Academy of Design provided both exhibition space and an audience for artists’ most accomplished works. The popularity of the National Academy of Design created a problem for many artists, as the annual exhibition grew to encompass over 300 works of art. Artists complained about the “salon-style” floor-to-ceiling hangings, particularly when their work was hung near the ceiling.
Church was active in National Academy of Design exhibitions; however, by 1857 he began working with commercial agents and galleries to display each of his large-scale paintings, which he called “Great Pictures,” as a solo event. In the case of The Icebergs, Church arranged to have the painting draped in crimson and installed by itself in an opulently appointed room. Viewers paid a quarter to see the painting. Church also helped orchestrate the publicity surrounding each of his artworks. For The Icebergs, Church distributed a printed broadside to help viewers comprehend the unfamiliar arctic vista. The broadside described the various glacial features and dazzling optical effects of the iceberg depicted in the painting.
Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900)
Frederic Church was one of the most celebrated American landscape painters of his time, and his legacy continues into the present. Church was born in Hartford, Connecticut to a wealthy family that used their connections to establish Hudson River School landscape painter Thomas Cole as Church’s mentor. Church studied at Cole’s New York studio in the Catskills Mountains between 1844 and 1846. After leaving his mentor, Church set up his own studio in New York City and became inspired by explorer Alexander von Humboldt’s accounts of his five-year expedition in South America. Humboldt’s experiences sparked an interest in travel and exotic landscapes that would stay with Church throughout his career. He would make expeditions to Columbia, Ecuador, Jamaica, Israel, Jordan, and countries throughout Europe in an effort to follow Humboldt’s global mandate and capture as much of the world as possible for the American public. These travels would result in his most celebrated and widely exhibited works, such as Niagara (1857) and The Heart of the Andes (1859), which launched him onto the national and international art stage.
In 1860, Church married Isabel Carnes, and the couple settled on a farm in Hudson, New York. Unfortunately, Church outlived his popularity. By the final decades of the nineteenth-century, patrons had turned away from Hudson River School painters and were more interested in the Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist styles imported from Europe. Church died in New York City, nearly forgotten, in 1900.
The Reverend Louis Legrand Noble
The Reverend Louis Legrand Noble accompanied Church on his 1859 trip to Labrador to sketch icebergs. Noble published a book (After Icebergs with a Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and around Newfoundland) about their trip, in which he wrote about their adventures.
“If one is curious about the troubles of painting on a little coaster, lightly ballasted, dashing forward frequently under a press of sail, with a short sea, I would recommend him to a good stout swing. While in the enjoyment of his smooth and sickening vibrations, let him spread his pallet [sic], arrange his canvas, and paint a pair of colts at their gambols in some adjacent field.”
“The painter is a model of industry, sketching and painting the bergs as we pass them. We have been [near one] for some time, out of which might be cut an entire block of Broadway buildings…. Icebergs have a kind of life. They startle, frighten, awe; they astonish, excite, amuse, delight and fascinate…. They are the favorite playground of the lines, surfaces and shapes of the whole world, the heavens above, the earth and the waters under…. These are the poet’s and the painter’s fields, more than they are the fields of the naturalist [scientist].”
American Landscape and the Sublime
When this painting was made, many artists and viewers believed that God revealed Himself in spectacular natural phenomena such as icebergs. Artists like Church transformed traditional landscape painting into images of what 19th-century people called the "Sublime." The "Sublime" was described as awesome, boundless, or overwhelming, qualities appropriate to an interpretation of nature as an image of the divine. Many of Church’s large-scale landscape paintings such as The Icebergs, Niagara (1857) and The Heart of the Andes (1859) evoke this idea of the “Sublime.”
Scientific surveys or expeditions in America were prompted by an interest in the science and scenery of outlying territories, particularly of the American West. The government sponsored many groups of scientists to explore the geology, topography, and biology of these regions. Artists such as Frederic Church became an important part of these expeditions, documenting visually all that was seen along the way. Many artists made painstaking attempts to record various flora and fauna in addition to the general landscape of a place.
The arctic became particularly intriguing to the popular mind after Sir John Franklin’s expedition in 1847. Franklin and his crew disappeared while searching for the Northwest Passage, which sparked popular interest in the region and underlined the arctic as an irresistibly beautiful, yet deadly frontier.
1. Make a list of all of the colors that you see throughout this painting. Which areas of color are most striking to you?
2. What adjectives would you use to describe nature as it appears in the painting? What adjectives would you use to describe humankind?
3. Imagine yourself standing inside the world of this painting. What is something you might see, hear, smell, or taste in this place?
4. Traveling to Newfoundland was a big adventure for Frederic Church. Why do you think the artist was interested in icebergs? He spent several weeks studying the artic environment in order to create this painting. How are artists and scientists alike? Why would an artist want to explore another place, whether on land or water?
5. As a class, brainstorm events and people in history associated with exploration or discovery. (i.e. Christopher Columbus, Magellan, Lewis and Clark, the exploration of the moon, exploring the ocean floors, exploring the rainforest, discovering new medical treatments for illnesses, discovering ancient civilizations, etc.). After the brainstorm, discuss some of these events/people and talk about why they are important to us today.
1. Compare Church's The Icebergs
with Maurice Vlaminck's Bougival
. Consider the artist's use of color in their landscape paintings. How does each pull the viewer into the scene?
2. Imagine the Icebergs as a scene in a movie. What kind of soundtrack should accompany this movie? Gather a group of musical works, such as songs, marches, or orchestra pieces. Also, listen to the sound designs created for The Icebergs by university students that are included in the Media & Resources Tab. As each one is played, look at the images of The Icebergs. Compare and contrast your reactions to each music sample and discuss with classmates which music best relates to the painting.
3. Follow a creative process similar to Frederic Church's process when he created The Icebergs. Choose a subject in nature that is interesting to you. Spend some time everyday or every few day sketching this subject. Sketch at different times of day, from different viewpoints, and using a variety of materials including pastels, colored pencils, and ink. After several weeks, gather and review your sketches.Finally, plan and create a final artwork that reflect your chosen subject and your experiences studying that subject over time.
4. Nineteenth-century people were very interested in reading about exotic and remote places. They liked to read not only scientific writings but also fictional accounts of daring adventures. Imagine that you are in the world of The Icebergs. Create a short story about your adventure, using the following sentence as the beginning. "As our ship sailed between the huge mountains of ice..." Challenge yourself to be as descriptive as possible and create a story that emphasizes sensory experiences - sight, smell, touch, and taste.
Carr, Gerald L. The Icebergs. Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, 1980.
Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection. Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 1997. Page 228.
Harvey, Eleanor Jones. “The Icebergs Rediscovered” Dallas Museum of Art: 100 Years. Dallas Museum of Art, 2003. Brochure #41.
Harvey, Eleanor Jones. The Voyage of The Icebergs: Frederic Church’s Arctic Masterpiece. Dallas, TX: Dallas Museum of Art, 2002.
O’Toole, Judith. Skolnick, Arnold. Different Views in Hudson River School Painting. Columbia University Press, 2008.
Wilton, Andrew. Barringer, Tim. American Sublime: Landscape painting in the United States 1820-1880. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Books for Students:
Butts, Edward. Henry Hudson: New World Voyageur. Dundurn Group Ltd, 2009.
Knudsen, Anders. Sir John Franklin: The Search for the Northwest Passage. Crabtree Publishing Company, 2007.
Minor, Wendell. America The Beautiful. Penguin Group, 2005.
Simon, Seymour. Icebergs and Glaciers. Harper Collins Publishers, 1999.
This website presents the complete works of Frederic Edwin Church.
Visit the home of the artist.
Find information on viewing icebergs in Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada.
This resource contains scientific facts about icebergs.
This website provides an overview of Church’s painting career.
This website provides a summary of the Hudson River School of landscape painters.
DMA Icebergs game (in external drive)