Would you pay seven dollars and stand in a long line around the block to see this painting?
When I learned that in 1859, almost 13,000 New Yorkers did just that—paying 25 cents (the equivalent of about seven dollars in today’s currency) during the three weeks that Frederic Church’s “The Heart of the Andes” was on view at the Tenth Street Studio, I decided to seek out the painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where it now lives.
I wanted to see if I could put myself in the place of those 19th_century New Yorkers and feel some of the same excitement they felt when looking at this painting.
The short answer is no, I couldn’t.
Upon reflection it should have been clear that I would fail at this attempt. In order to succeed with my experiment I would have to become what I am not. I would have to somehow escape the culture I swim in, forgetting a lot of what I know and the assumptions I make. Professional actors can sometimes do this, but it takes a lot of training and talent to replace oneself with another self.
First of all, in 1859, there were limited opportunities to view art work. There were galleries with a limited selection of paintings, but the Metropolitan Museum would not be founded until 1870. Just to be able to see a large (10 by 5 ½ feet tall) painting by America’s most famous painter would be an exciting possibility.
Today we are surrounded by colored representations everywhere we turn. Then there was much less visual stimulation. No colored pictures in books at all and the chromolithographs which were then widely available were feeble in comparison to what we are used to seeing wherever we look.
But there was more to it than that. Travel to exotic locations was limited then to intrepid explorers and scientists. Alexander Van Humboldt, a widely recognized naturalist explorer began a five-year expedition to South America in 1799, in which he recorded the natural environment. Later, Church, following in his footsteps, painted the natural world that Humboldt described. And curious New Yorkers flocked to see what Humboldt had found.
“The Heart of the Andes” is not a representation of an actual site but a compilation of the various climatic zones that Humboldt explored: the snowy peaks, the temperate climate and in the foreground the steamy jungle flora, which Church painted with meticulous accuracy. These detailed elements are not visible in the above image; in fact, they are not visible at all unless you stand very close and scrutinize the painting carefully. Visitors to the exhibition in 1859 were encouraged to bring opera glasses so that they could examine the details of the flowers and foliage, the birds and butterflies.
Today there is no corner of the world that is as mysterious to me as Ecuador was to the mid-19th century New Yorker. I’ve seen too many National Geographic publications and videos to be amazed by Church’s representation of tropical flora.
If I wanted to—I don’t, but if I did— I could be in Ecuador within hours and there are many travel services that would take me on an exploratory trip of the natural wonders depicted in Church’s painting.
By grouping paintings chronologically, the Museum encourages us to view the painting as representative of the art of the period. It shares the gallery with Leutze’s iconic “Washington Crossing the Delaware” and other paintings of the time. Yet I think we would be better served in understanding this particular painting if they exhibited it, as they once did, in a replica of the walnut frame which Church himself designed. Something like a window frame, it stood on the floor, putting the painting at eye level of the average viewer, making it easier to view the details. A green drapery completed the theatrical effect Church intended. And it wouldn’t hurt if they provided opera glasses.