Mid-nineteenth-century Grand Rapids, Michigan offered limited opportunities for education. In an illustration for Harper’s Weekly (Fig. 1), Frederick Stuart Church recalled his early school days in a Grand Rapids one room schoolhouse. Consumed by a desire to draw, young Fred occupied himself drawing with pencil on the blank pages of his school texts and on blank flyleaves removed from books. It was not until 1854 that art instruction became available in Grand Rapids from a Dutch artist, Marinus Harting. Fred and his schoolmate, Lawrence Earle, signed up for lessons. Fred paid for them by delivering newspapers, but there was little money left to purchase art supplies.
This arrangement was short-lived when, in 1855 at the age of 13, Fred moved to Chicago to live with his uncle and aunt and work in the express business. His uncle, James C. Fargo was the supervisor of the western division of the American Express Co. Church’s work as a clerk at American Express left no time for either academic or artistic education, but his freelance sketching continued. In April of 1861 Church responded to President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers by joining the Chicago Light Artillery, an elite company of state militia. He continued to sketch throughout the war, filling his letters home with humorous sketches, a release from the rigors and horrors of military conflict. But art materials were in short supply. “About five minute since I undertook to write you a letter with a pencil which I had bought of a sutler this afternoon,” he wrote, “but I might as well have written with a nail as like all articles sold by sutlery they are not made for use, only to sell.” Honorably discharged in July 1864, Fred returned to Chicago to resume work at the American Express Company.
Church must have been thrilled in 1866 when a group of Chicago artists established the Academy of Design, which offered free art lessons. It is likely that he was among the first students who studied with Walter Shirlaw. In 1868, Conrad Diehl took over as instructor and taught drawing from the antique. Here, Church learned to shade by cross-hatching, which would serve him well when submitting illustrations to newspapers and magazines. To attend afternoon classes Church had to work nights. Keeping awake during classes was often difficult.
Church continued to work for the express company in Chicago until 1870, when he moved to New York City with the intention of becoming a full-time artist. In New York he established a small studio on Broadway and soon joined a few other young artists for weekly gatherings to present and critique sketches. This group eventually became known as the Salmagundi Club. In the evenings Church and his colleagues attended art classes at the National Academy of Design where he studied under Lemuel E. Wilmarth, drawing from the antique and from life. Church studied at the academy from 1871 through 1875 when the academy discontinued its classes.
The elimination of classes was only one of a list of complaints that Church and his fellow students had with the Academy, which quickly galvanized them into action. After meeting with Wilmarth, they decided to establish classes under his direction. Each student contributed a modest fee to support the new institution, the Art Students League. Classes began in the fall of 1875. Students’ enthusiasm fueled an open door policy and access to life drawing for women students, and the availability of more relevant classes. Two years after the League’s founding, Wilmarth returned to teach at the academy. Several students followed him, but most, including Church, remained with the League. Several months later, the hard work of Church and Frank Waller were credited with saving the League at this critical juncture. In 1878, when the Art Students League’s board decided to formalize the organization by becoming incorporated, Church was involved in the process, even helping revise the school’s constitution. While chairman of the art committee, Church organized a series of special exhibits that were held at the League’s monthly member meetings. A veritable list of who’s who of nineteenth-century American artists exhibition, including John La Farge, Elihu Vedder, George Inness, Sr., Walter Shirlaw, William M. Chase, Frederick Dielman, William T. Dannat, Frank Duveneck, J.G. Brown, Edwin A. Abbey, James A.M. Whistler, and Augustus St. Gaudens.
All of the effort that went into establishing the League was done to provide a place to continue its founders’ art education. In 1878 Church was studying composition with his former teacher, Walter Shirlaw. One work he created in this class was “The Vision” (Fig 2). A woman in a nun’s habit is seated at an organ, a scene from the legend of St. Cecilia. Though an unusual image for Church, he may have been inspired by Joshua Reynolds’ painting, Mrs. Billington, as “St. Cecilia” (1789), exhibited at the James Lenox Gallery. (Reynolds’ work and Church’s interpretation of the subject bare no resemblance to each other.) Church might have chosen the subject because his mother, Mary Church, played the organ at the St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Grand Rapids for several decades. She became a charter member of the Grand Rapids St. Cecilia Society. Church revisited the subject in 1895 when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of St. Cecilia. Tiffany translated his portrait into a stained glass window for the Grand Rapids St. Cecilia Society’s concert hall, where it can be seen today.
Church continued to study art for some time. In 1882 he published a humorous illustration that depicts a group of art students confronted by an irate gander (Fig 3). In “Out of Patience,” the gander says, “Now, ladies and gentleman, you have been sketching us and following us about all the week, and this is Saturday. Can’t we have the usual half-holiday?” The scene takes place on Long Island, evinced by the windmills and falling sketch labeled, “John Howard Payne/old fireplace.” John Howard Payne was an actor and writer whose ancestral home was on Long Island. He died in the fall of 1882 and was buried in Tunis where he was serving as the US ambassador. (His body was exhumed for reburial in the United States.) As the lyricist of the popular song “Home Sweet Home,” Payne was well known to Civil War veterans, both North and South. Church drew himself in the scene, wearing a large conical hat and standing directly behind the leader. On the extreme right foreground is likely Laura Woodward. The group’s leader bears some resemblance to William M. Chase, with a summer’s growth of whiskers. Out of Patience may have depicted an Art Students League class; many of Church’s illustrations are based on reality with a twist of imagination to add humor and interest.
It would be difficult to overstate the importance of the Art Students League to Church’s life as an artist. More than his enrollment as student, Church gained lifelong friendships with Frank Waller, William M. Chase, J. Carroll Beckwith, William St. John Harper, and C.Y. Turner that sustained him and influenced his creative expression through companionship, criticism, props for paintings, and even loans of money.
Many of the renegades who had deserted the National Academy later returned and helped modernize its operations. Church was elected an Associate Academician in 1883 and an Academician in 1885. He served two stints on the Academy’s Council, in the 1880s and 1890s, and continued his commitment to art education by serving on the Council’s school committee.
Unlike many of his colleagues, Church never trained abroad in the French or German ateliers. He remained a thoroughly American artist, his works finding their way into many of the prominent American art collections of his time.
William Brownell, “The Art-Schools of New York,” Scribner’s Monthly, 16 (October 1878), 761 –81.
William St. John Harper, “F.S. Church: A Painter of the Ideal,”The Outlook 81 (November 25, 1905), 751–60.
W. Dale Horst and Rose Marie Horst, Frederick Stuart Church: A Brush with Imagination (2010).
Ronald Pisano, “A Brief History of the League’s Early Years,” in The Art Students League Selections from the Permanent Collection (1987).