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In 1859, artist Frederic Edwin Church braved 'Iceberg Alley' to get close to his subject matter. A small, winter exhibit at Olana gives insight into his landmark journey

The Icebergs

A chromolithograph of "The Icebergs (The North)," by Fredric Edwin Church hangs in the Sharp Family Gallery at Olana in Hudson, N.Y., where "Chasing Icebergs is on view through March 26. 

HUDSON, N.Y. — From the shores of St. Johns, Newfoundland, acclaimed artist Frederic Edwin Church had hoped to be able to paint the icebergs that dotted the coastline, but his hopes were dashed by reality.

"Icebergs were too few for the requisite variety; too scattered to be reached conveniently; and too distant to be minutely examined from land. One needed to be in the midst of them, where he could command views, near or remote, of all sides of them, at all hours of the day and evening," wrote the Rev. Louis Legrand Noble, Church's friend and companion in his pursuit of icebergs during the summer of 1859.

To get the views he desired and required, Church hired a small vessel to take the pair to Labrador, Newfoundland, to the famous "Iceberg Alley."

"Favoring circumstances directed us to Battle Harbor, near Cape St. Louis, in the waters of which icebergs, and all facilities for sketching them, abounded," Noble writes in "After Icebergs With A Painter: A Summer Voyage to Labrador and around Newfoundland," a record of their travels that summer.

The journey was a landmark event in the history of art, as Church was the artist to first to travel perilous waters to capture the colors of the floating ice sheets.

What motivated the artist to hire a crew, to navigate freezing waters, to endure seasickness and the challenges of finding the icebergs he sought? His motivation was two-fold, according to "Chasing Icebergs: Art and the Disappearing Landscape" a small show of his resulting work on view through March 26 in the Sharp Family Gallery at Olana State Historic Site, Church's home and estate.

First, Church had come of age during a time of northern exploration, when men journeyed into the arctic for purposes of exploration and glory. Just 17 years prior to Church's journey, in 1845, an ill-fated British expedition, led by Captain Sir John Franklin, ended with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, becoming icebound in Victoria Strait. Both crews — 129 men in all — would be lost. The loss would weigh heavily on the minds of those who had followed the subsequent search and rescue attempts — seven total — in the press, both in the United States and in England.

Church was also in search of inspiration, something worthy of following his commercial and artistic success of "Niagara," the painting that earned him the title of America's premier landscape painter. Church also had made a fortune from his marketing of the painting, not only selling it, but successfully taking it on tour, charging 25 cents a viewing to tens of thousands of city dwellers. He also sold limited editions of artist proofs and chromolithographs of the painting. He had success in early 1859 with a similar marketing campaign for "Heart of the Andes," which he eventually sold for $10,000 and was on the hunt for his next subject. 

Church returned home with enough sketches and paintings to supply him with arctic inspiration for the next three decades, but his immediate focus was a painting known today as "The Icebergs," which debuted in 1861. Unfortunately, Church's marketing efforts would fall flat, as America's attention turned toward the war at hand, the Civil War. In an effort to draw attention to his work, he renamed it appropriately, "The North."  After shows in New York City and Boston, he brought the painting abroad, to London, where he changed the name back to "The Icebergs," as England was favoring The Confederacy at that time. In addition, he added in the broken mast of a ship, not only giving scale to his already luminous work, but also a sense of the fragility of man in the arctic wild. 

The painting eventually was purchased Edward Watkin, a British member of parliament, who put it on display in his home, Rose Hill, in Manchester. Following Watkin's death in 1901, the location of the painting became a mystery. It's whereabouts were the subject of a 1966 book and two auction houses searched for it in the 1970s.

The painting, which is 5.4-feet-wide -by-9.4-feet-high, had never moved from Rose Hill, which in the 1970s, was a private boy's school. It had remained on the staircase the entire time. In 1979, it made its was to Sotheby's where it was sold at auction. It now resides in the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas.

At Olana, visitors to the Sharp Family Gallery, a small two-room wing on the second floor can view "The Icebergs (The North)" in the form of a lithograph hung above a fireplace, as well as several of his other iceberg related works, including preparatory paintings for his 1891 painting, "Iceberg," as well as sketches made during the journey. There are works from his contemporaries as well, including "Church's Peak, Arctic Region, 1860," a watercolor by artic explorer and Church's friend, Dr. Isaac Israel Hayes.

Rich in color, in composition and craft, the paintings are devoid of life, all depict barren, uninhabited wastelands, the only life in the form of a ship, placed in such a way to give scale to the work. To the viewer of these works, of Church or his contemporaries, the artic was a perilous place, cold and lifeless, abandoned by all. Church and those who followed failed to show the arctic, especially Labrador and Newfoundland, as it was and still is — inhabited by the Inuit, the Innu, the Mi'kmaq and the Southern Inuit of NunatuKavut.

Included in the exhibit are works by four contemporary artists: an image of a cracking iceberg by photographer Lynn Davis; a video by Zaira Forman, who documents climate change with her work; handblown glass sculptures by Kambui Oiujimi and an oil painting by Mark Igloliorte. Unfortunately, the separation of these works, save for Igloliorte's, from Church's works lessens the impact they have, an opportunity to create dialogues between the works, to start conversations about climate change, of the erasure of indigenous people from the landscape is lost in the shuffle from one room to the other, if the second room of contemporary art is even entered.

The show is small, part of a reasonably priced guided tour, that is separate from guided house tour of the first floor. A hearty attempt to draw in crowds during its first winter show.


'Chasing Icebergs: Art and a Disappearing Landscape'

What: 30-minute guided viewing takes you to the second-floor galleries of the Artist’s House to experience Olana’s first winter exhibition. Tour of first-floor of house requires a separate ticket. Tour is not ADA-accessible.

Where: Olana State Historic Site, 5720 State Route 9G, Hudson, N.Y.

When: Through March 26

Winter hours: 11 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Friday-Sunday. Park is open daily, 8 a.m. until sunset.

Admission: $10, adult (13 and over), $5, active military and first responders. Timed-entry, limited space. Please check website for house and property tour ticket prices and times.

Tickets and information: 518-751-0344, olana.org

Jennifer Huberdeau can be reached at jhuberdeau@berkshireeagle.com or 413-496-6229. On Twitter: @BE_DigitalJen

Features Editor

Jennifer Huberdeau is The Eagle's features editor. Prior to The Eagle, she worked at The North Adams Transcript. She is a 2021 Rabkin Award Winner, 2020 New England First Amendment Institute Fellow and a 2010 BCBS Health Care Fellow.

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