Hello readers! I took last week off for two reasons: 1) Independence Day week; and 2) I had something called Labyrinthitis. It made it really difficult to type or to even look at my laptop, so I just took the week off.
I thought I woulds try something a little different this week: a theme. This week’s theme is “Art from Dallas.” I have lived in Dallas almost all my life (just subtracting time in Waco and Denton for college years). I have taught in Dallas for most of my life, too: 15 years in the Richardson ISD (but in the Dallas city limits) and 18 years at Dallas Baptist University. I’m proud of my city and its culture, so I thought I would highlight a little bit of that this week.
Since I set out to feature paintings on Mondays, I decided to choose a painting from the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). For the past 16 years, I have assigned a project every semester in which my students must visit a museum, choose a painting or other work of art, and then write about it using critical thinking and analytical processes. Since the university is in between Dallas and Fort Worth, most of my students visit museums in those two cities, and most of them choose the DMA. By far, the most chosen painting has been The Icebergs.
The Icebergs, Frederic Edwin Church (1861)
What makes this painting so attractive to so many students, of all ages and levels of experience with art? I think one of the most prominent features is its size: the painting measures 64 1/2″ X 112 1/2″, without its frame. Framed, it is over 85 inches in height, which is a little over six feet tall. According to the DMA’s website, the painting weighs 425 pounds! The sheer size is so arresting; as art expert and critic Sister Wendy pointed out, “Small painting, big you–you control the experience. Large painting, small you–the painting controls you.” When you visit the museum and you round the corner and are confronted by this massive work, it makes an indelible impression.
Also, the painting depicts something that I think most people find fascinating–the world of the far North. The original title of the painting was The North, and it was first exhibited in New York. At that time, the Civil War had just begun, and proceeds from the exhibition of this painting in New York, Boston, and other cities were donated to the Union’s Patriotic Fund, which is now the Red Cross. However, the escalation of the war made exhibiting and trying to sell the painting much more difficult, so Church took his work to England, where the name was changed to The Icebergs so as not to offend Confederate sympathizers. Viewers of the painting were intrigued, then as now, by the beauty and the inherent danger of this foreign landscape.
Church actually made a month-long expedition to Newfoundland and Labrador in order to see the frozen wastelands of the far North for himself. Not only did he view the scenery from his ship; he also took a rowboat out on several occasions so that he could better study the features and colors of these remarkable lands. He made over a hundred sketches and color studies to aid him when he returned to his studio to paint. The painting itself took only about six months, which is astonishing when you consider the size and the intricate composition of this work.
Accompanying Church on his journey was his friend, the Reverend Louis Legrand Noble. Noble provided companionship on the long journey, but he also kept notes on all the adventures the two gentlemen experienced during their trip. Noble used his notes to write a three-hundred-page book, titled After Icebergs With a Painter. The book’s publication occurred simultaneously with the painting’s first exhibitions, and the two events caused what today would be called synergy–both the writer and the painter received more acclaim than might have happened otherwise.
In the foreground you can see the broken mast of a shipwreck. This did not appear in the work when it was first shown in New York. Experts speculate that Church added the mast to give some perspective to the piece so that viewers would be able to comprehend the enormity of the icebergs. The mast also adds a clear sense of danger to the work; we understand that this is not a calm or pastoral scene, but a view of life-threatening peril.
That sense of peril in the left foreground is in exquisite contrast to the emerald waters of the right fore- and middle ground, where we see an ice tunnel and clear shallows of blue and green. In turn, these colors contrast sharply with the yellows, oranges, browns, and whites of the more distant icebergs and the eerie sky beyond. Rather than implying warmth, as these tones usually do, the colors signify a warning of the hazards this land contains. In addition, there is a bold contrast between the jagged, craggy texture of the ice and the smooth, glossy surface of the water. Church’s impressive technique allows the viewer to imagine the feel of these and other items depicted in the painting.
Because this painting is so popular, the DMA has accumulated a good selection of resources related to the work and its creator. I invite you to peruse their site if you find the painting as interesting as so many of my students have. The DMA is quite fortunate to have acquired this work, and they are understandably very proud of it. Of course, seeing a reproduction on a screen is not as satisfying or exciting as coming face to face with it can be, so if you’re ever in Dallas or if you have lived here forever, like me, I hope you will visit the DMA and experience The Icebergs for yourself. By the way, admission to the general collection (where you can view this work) is free!