Any other door in the National Gallery will lead you to better art, so why open this one? To enjoy the lurid magnificence of Frederic Church’s 1861 painting ‘Our Banner in the Sky’, that’s why. Before a halogen sunrise/sunset stands a single tree, barren as if struck by lightning. It takes a second for the heavenly striations and sprinkling of stars to coalesce into a celestial Union Flag, the tree its pole. Church painted the improbable image just weeks after the start of the American Civil War, affecting divine endorsement for the Northern cause.
By Church’s standards the image is a tiddler (in fact, it’s a print of the original painting, one of a handful of the thousands produced that the artist chose to embellish), but it sums up the God/nature/patriotism dynamic that runs throughout Church’s paintings – and those of his Hudson River School contemporaries.
Concentrating on the oil sketches Church made on the hoof on trips to upstate New York and further afield (to Ecuador, Jordan, Jamaica and Germany), this small display sidesteps most of his painterly histrionics – through American eyes but tailored for English tastes, perhaps. Its grandest statement is ‘Niagara Falls, from the American Side’ (1867), a mighty edifice of spumy sublime that makes the case for Church as an American heir to the German romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich. Its highpoints, though, are deft tonal studies like ‘Floating Icebergs, Labrador’ (1859).
Church’s touch tends towards the treacly – perfect for the sweaty, stormy ‘Fern Walk, Jamaica’ (1865), less convincing in ‘Horse Shoe Falls and Table Rock’ (1856-67), where wriggles of paint seem to lurch reluctantly over the precipice. The gallery text encourages you to explore other landscapes in the NG, first across the corridor to the companion display ‘Through European Eyes’, where Corot and Courbet reign, then deeper into the gallery, to Constable and Turner. Chances are, you won’t go back to Church.