Frederic Edwin Church
View of Baalbek, circa 1868
Oil and pencil on heavy card
9 1/2 x 20 inches
Sarah (Sally) and Louis Church, son of the artist
By gift to Louise Good Murray, Patton, PA
By descent to the current owner
This painting was examined by the Church authority Dr. Gerald Carr, who was kind enough to provide the accompanying essay. We wish to thank Dr. Carr for his assistance in authenticating this work.
In his discussion of the painting, Dr. Gerald Carr writes that it:
...has a provenance connected to and in my opinion is by the American landscape painter Frederic E. Church (1826-1900). Carefully brushed in oils over pencil outlines (a frequent procedure of Church's), it panoramically depicts the ruined temple precincts and surroundings at the ancient Roman city of Baalbek, in present-day Lebanon.
Church memorably visited Baalbek with his wife Isabel (1836-99) in May 1868. The present picture is an important addition to his known oeuvre. Presumably Church painted it mostly or entirely outdoors. Aesthetically combining ''sketch" and "finished painting," the picture was, if he chose afterward (as he did), fit for framing, in this case for his and his wife's pleasure. The vantage point is from a slightly elevated position several hundred yards east southeast of the city's acropolis, looking approximately west northwest. Preceded by dry acreage--portions evidently a vineyard--partitioned with snaky low walls, and by the village of Baalbek (comprising, in Church's day, about one hundred houses), the architectural remnants are wreathed with rich greenery and backdropped by rolling, snow-crested Lebanese mountains extending toward the left (southwest). The chief visible architecture fragments are, at middle left, six tall Corinthian columns and connecting entablatures of the Great Temple (as it was then known), and, farther right and nearer on a lower platform, a robust, former peripteral Corinthian structure variously designated in the nineteenth century a Temple of Jupiter, Temple of the Sun, or, simply, Temple of Baal. A cylinder of one of the latter's fallen columns leans against its southeastern wall. (Presently identified as a temple of Bacchus, several of its encircling uprights have been re-erected in recent years).
Traveling through the Holy Land with their mother-in-law and small son during early 1868, the married Churches--'mama' and 'the baby' (as Mrs. Church referred to them in an extant diary [photostatic copy, New-York Historical Society; typed transcript at Olana] she carried with her) remaining at Beirut--proceeded toward remote destinations via Jerusalem to Damascus. Thence, in late April 1868, accompanied by a few Euro-American men including a photographer, and escorted by an Arab guide and 'armed guard,' they headed by mule and camel caravan for the historically earthquake-prone "'giant cities of Bashan'"--Isabel's Church's re-quoted phrase, borrowed from the title of an oft-reprinted British book (1865, etc.) by Rev. J. L. Porter; the Churches owned an 1867 New York edition. Porter introduced "Bashan," a Biblical name associated with the region, by calling it "the land of sacred romance."1
The Churches had planned to visit the spacious Roman ruins at Palmyra in Syria, before proceeding to ancient Baalbek in Lebanon. Old Palmyra had staged events romanticized during the nineteenth century, especially involving its legendary Queen, Zenobia (third century A.D.). Mr. Church was interested in Zenobia; Rev. Porter had been more impressed with Palmyra than Baalbek. Regretfully unable, however, to reconnoiter the sizeable expedition required--in a different direction--for Palmyra, Church contented himself with meeting, at Damascus, a modern-day Zenobia, English-born "Lady" Jane Elizabeth Digby (1807-81), and viewing her sketches of Palmyra. At some point he also purchased about two dozen recent photographs of that site (all in the collections of Olana State Historic Site).
But Baalbek, designated "Heliopolis"--"City of the Sun"--by Alexander the Great and in some nineteenth-century literature, was neither substitute nor consolation. It was instead a major, venturesome goal of Church's Near Eastern tour, comparable to the "stony mountains of Arabia Petrea" and "valley of Petra" in present-day Jordan.2 Unaccompanied by family members, Church intrepidly journeyed by camel convoy to and from Petra via Jerusalem, Gaza, Beirut, and Jaffa during February and March 1868. The English author of an architectural history (1855) that the Churches owned, described Baalbek's remnants as, altogether, "the most magnificent temple group now left to us of their class and age," while puzzling at the 'immense size' of their constitute stones.3 An English guidebook to the Near East (1868) by Rev. Porter that the Churches carried with them, referred to Baalbek's "world-wide celebrity" and "magnificence," which have "excited the wonder and admiration of every traveler who has been privileged to visit it;" the intricacies of the buildings' "sculptured friezes and doorways;" and their colossal "substructures."4 Other Euro-American writers of the nineteenth century and earlier ruminated on Baalbek's 'enormous magnitude and unparalleled richness;' its latter-day convulsive decay; and its elegiac historical elusiveness, akin, in some respects, to that of Stonehenge in England. In 1864 (English translation, 1865) a traveled male French Protestant cleric described Baalbek's component stones as "saturated with golden radiance" of centuries, and the "entire city" as a "sublime cenotaph" and "the ideal ruin of a dream, full of disorder, poetry, grandeur."5 Maria Cummins, in 1860 envisioned Baalbekian vestiges "thrown together in wildest confusion" atop a neighboring snow summit. She titled her tome (the Churches owned a copy) after a regional place name, El FureidÃ®s--loosely, Paradise".6 "With all this grandeur [at Baalbek] no human associations are linked; no great name of man or nation is bound up with these wonderful walls," wrote Elizabeth Rundle Charles (1828-96), a prolific, widely-published English author interested in theology, who had toured the "Bible Lands" in 1861. "What the eye saw" at Baalbek, Charles continued, "was grand beyond anything we had seen [elsewhere]; but what the eye saw was all."7 Had he read her words (her book, 1862, etc., was well known in Anglo-America), Frederic Church would have readied himself: his "eye" acuity exceeded any landscapist's of that period.
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