Cotopaxi
Frederic Edwin Church, American, 1826–1900
Oil on canvas
30 × 46 7/16 in. (76.2 × 118 cm) Frame: 44 × 60 in. (111.8 × 152.4 cm)

Habits of Mind

  • OBSERVE DETAILS Observe details / time to think and reflect

GRADE LEVEL

6

SUBJECT AREA

Art, Social Studies

Cotopaxi

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Connecting to the Work of Art

Frederic Church was a pupil of Thomas Cole, the great American landscape painter of the Hudson River School, (see the Art Card for Indian Pass, 1847). Cole once said that Church had the finest eye for drawing in the world, so Church did not study with Cole to learn technical skills. What Church did learn from Cole, however, was an understanding of Cole’s deeply held ideas about an artist’s responsibility not only to convey the physical beauty of the world, but also to address the complex and profound ideas about mankind and the human condition. Although Church became very successful painting landscapes in the New England area in the late 1840s and 1850s, he came from an enormously wealthy Connecticut family, and was never dependent on the income from his painting. After reading the German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt’s (1769–1859) Cosmos, a large collection of writings about scientific ideas and discoveries, Church became fascinated with the Andes Mountains region of South America. Church first traveled there in 1853, and produced several widely acclaimed landscapes based on what he saw, including Cotopaxi. He continued to travel extensively, drawing and sketching scenery, throughout the remainder of his life.

 

Cotopaxi, the cone-shaped volcano in the Andes Mountains of Ecuador, can be seen in the distance in Church’s panoramic South American landscape. The snowcapped volcano rises approximately 10,000 feet from the valley floor to a summit of about 19,500 feet above sea level. It is surrounded by the warm tropics, filled with exotic plants and birds. A thundering waterfall sits in the distance, behind a calm, reflective lake. A subtle puff of smoke drifts from the volcano, hinting at Cotopaxi’s powerful potential for devastation, while the tiny figures in the foreground suggest the insignificance of humanity compared to the vastness of nature. Church spent six months travelling through the mountains and tropical forests of Colombia and Ecuador. Cotopaxi became the subject of many of his works for the next ten years.

 

During his travels Church made very extensive notes on what he observed. He was then able to use the notes in his work to draw details with incredible accuracy. In his painting, Cotopaxi, Church renders the objects in the foreground with great care and detail, whereas in the middle ground and background, the elements are drawn less precisely.

 

The generation of landscape painters that preceded Church, including Church’s teacher Thomas Cole, looked to the Hudson River Valley and other areas of the American east for inspirational subject matter with which to convey their moral messages. The next generation, of which Church was a part, looked beyond the American east to the American west, and even to South America. American Romantic landscape painting, such as Cotopaxi, was intended to evoke feelings of awe at the power of nature. The works often contained a moralistic message for the viewer, depicting the powerful forces of nature versus the small scale of man and human efforts. In an era before extensive travel and photography, these paintings also served as documentation of exotic and distant lands.

Conversation Starters

Observe

  • Moving from top to bottom, describe what you see. How much space does each element occupy?
  • Where is the dividing line between the foreground and the background? How can you tell?
  • What kinds of colors did Church use to depict each element? Light or dark? Colorful or monotone?
  • Look closely at the painting’s namesake, Cotopaxi, the volcano at the left of the background. How did Church choose to depict it? Did you think that it was a volcano before you were told?

Interpret

  • What is the story of this image? Who are the characters? What are they doing? What challenges are they about to face?
  • Church was part of a group of painters that used landscape images to communicate moral values and life lessons. What life lessons are embedded in this painting? Why do you think so?
  • Church painted this picture in New York, based off of extensive notes from his travel to the Andes Mountains. He painted for an American clientele. What do you think this painting did for its viewers and buyers in New York? Why would they have wanted to see it?
  • Frederic Church shared the desire of his teacher, Thomas Cole, to address in his painting moral issues involving mankind and its relationship to nature. Compare and contrast Cotopaxi and Thomas Cole’s 1847 painting, Indian Pass . How do these paintings address those issues?

Assessment

• Frederic Church traveled from New England to South America in 1853, a time when few people traveled to those locations. Consider the amount of time, the mode of travel, and other hardships he may have encountered to reach his destination in the mid-19th century. How does Church’s epic painting document the exotic land he visited? How could this painting be used in scientific or geographical studies?

• Following Church’s style, create a landscape postcard of your favorite place using descriptive and precise detail in the foreground and progressively less descriptive detail in the middle ground and background. Now create another postcard using more descriptive detail in the middle ground and background and less descriptive detail in the foreground. Compare the visual differences.

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The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.