No, this is not a religious post, but rather a brief look at some of the works of the American artist and illustrator Frederick Stuart Church (1842-1924), not to be confused with his better-known, near-contemporary Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) of the Hudson River School and Olana fame. During a brief dusting stint this weekend, I found myself admiring one of my F.S. Church etchings, bought in my early 20s, and it occurred to me that there are very few things I purchased over 20 years ago that I still like, must less admire. This particular etching, entitled Hop-Frog, is not exactly representative of Church’s work as it is the accompanying illustration to a rather dark story by Edgar Allen Poe. Nevertheless, it immediately charmed me then and continues to do so now.
Church was a Michigan-born artist who came to New York City in 1873 and seldom left afterwards. Over his long career he published more than a thousand illustrations in popular periodicals like Harper’s Weekly, Century Magazine, and Scribner’s, along with illustrations for several editions of classic children’s books like Aesop’s Fables and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Wonder Book for Boys and Girls. From his Carnegie Hall studio, he ventured out to the Bronx Zoo, the Central Park Menagerie, and performances of Barnum and Bailey’s Circus, inspiration for the whimsical animals that adorn his etchings, prints, letters and notebooks. My other two Church etchings are The Mermaid (with a seahorse) and Tiger and Bird (the former gazing longingly–but not hungrily–at the latter); these creatures appear often in his works, along with lions, bears (lots of polar bears), owls, and all manner of fauna—sometimes depicted anthropomorphically but always fancifully.
Church’s whimsy is continued in the twentieth century, and in his paintings, including my favorite Tiger Having Eaten the Professor (1905) and the popular Rites of Spring (1908) with its dancing polar bears.
Animals appear in nearly all his works, and Church himself wrote a reflective piece in Scribner’s Magazine entitled “An Artist among Animals” (1893), but there is also a strong feminine presence in his art, though his romantic young women are generally interacting with members of the animal kingdom. You can see Church’s sylphs above, and below, in print and painting versions of The Witch’s Daughter (1881, Library of Congress and Smithsonian Institution of American Art), as well as in The Dreamers, Girl with Rabbits (etching and watercolor, both 1886, Smithsonian Institution), and another one of my favorites, The Mirror (1891).
Over his lifetime, Church seems to have bridged the gap between the fine arts and the commercial arts quite gracefully. He had his artist friends (including William Merritt Chase, who painted his portrait), and his prominent patrons (to whom he wrote illustrated letters) but also steady publishing work. He was that rare creature: a popular artist. As I began with a Church illustration of a Poe composition, so I will end: with The Devil in the Belfry, the title page to Volume IV of the collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe, published in 1884 by A.C. Armstrong & Sons.