Like his teacher, Thomas Cole, Church conveyed a sense of awesome sublimity in his landscapes by celebrating the seemingly infinite wonders of the natural world. The artist devoted a great deal of time to scientific study, believing that a knowledge of optics, meteorology, botany, and ecology would greatly enhance his work. After reading the journalistic accounts of the German naturalist, Alexander von Humboldt, Church explored wilderness regions from the arctic to the equator.
El Rio de Luz (The River of Light) is a fanciful pastiche based on numerous sketches and notations that Church had made during an 1857 trip to South America. Despite the time–lapse of 20 years, the tightly focused realism, the overall tonal harmony and restrained coloration, and the compositionial unity all lend a remarkable cohesiveness to the work. Church rendered the verdant foliage with exquisite attention to detail, and his virtuoso treatment of tropical sunlight diffused by morning mist makes the atmosphere seem tangible. Red–breasted hummingbirds, a flock of waterfowl, and a distant canoeist occupy the scene, but they do not disturb the overall mood of tranquility. Confronted with the glowing light and heavy vapors of this raw landscape, the viewer is invited to liken daybreak in the tropical rainforest to the dawn of creation itself.
More information on this painting can be found in the Gallery publication American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I, pages 63-68, which is available as a free PDF at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/american-paintings-19th-century-part-1.pdf
lower right: F. E. CHURCH / 1877
William Earl Dodge, Jr. [d. 1903], New York; his wife, Mrs. William Earl Dodge, Jr. [d. 1909], New York; her grandson, William Earl Dodge IV [d. 1927], New York; his wife, Ella Lynch Dodge [d. 1964], New York; her stepdaughter, Diana Dodge Ryan, Newport; given in 1965 to the Preservation Society of Newport County, Rhode Island; purchased 9 December 1965 by NGA.
- Century Association, New York, 1877, no. 5, as A Tropical Morning.
- Exposition Universelle Internationale, Palais du Champ de Mars, Paris, 1878, no. 20, as Le matin sous les tropiques.
- Possibly The Union League Club, New York, 1878, no cat.
- Loan Collection of Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1880, no. 111, as The River of Light.
- Paintings by Frederic E. Church, N.A., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1900, no. 13, repro.
- Frederic Edwin Church, National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, D.C.; Albany Institute of History and Art; M. Knoedler and Co., New York, 1966, no. 97 (shown only in Washington).
- The Hudson River School, Fine Arts Center, State University College, Geneseo, New York, 1968, repro. 61.
- In Memoriam, Ailsa Mellon Bruce, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1969, unnumbered checklist.
- The Beckoning Land, High Museum of Art, Atlanta, 1971, no. 51, repro.
- Frederic Edwin Church, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1989-1990, no. 49, color repro.
- In Search of the Promised Land: Paintings by Frederic Edwin Church, Berry-Hill Galleries, New York; Terra Museum of American Art, Chicago; Portland Art Museum, Oregon; Portland Museum of Art, Maine, 2000-2001, pl. 66 (not shown in New York).
- "American Art in Paris." Art Journal 4 (May 1878): 160.
- "Art at the Union League Club." New York Post (28 February 1878): 2.
- French, H.W. Art and Critics in Connecticut. Boston, 1879: 134.
- Brownwell, William C. "The Younger Painters of America." Scribner's Monthly 20 (May 1880): 323-324.
- Montgomery, Walter, ed. American Art and American Art Collections. 2 vols. Boston, 1889. Reprint, New York and London, 1978: 2:774.
- Frederic Edwin Church. Exh. cat. National Collection of Fine Arts (now National Museum of American Art), Washington, D.C., 1966: 18, 68, no. 97.
- Huntington, David C. The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era. New York, 1966: 49, 93, 103, 194, 105-106, 108-109, 126, 129, figs. 90, 91.
- Stevens, Elisabeth. "An Observant Melodramatist." Art in America 40 (April 1966): 46.
- American Paintings and Sculpture: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1970: 40, repro.
- Campbell, William P. "The American Heritage at the National Gallery of Art." The Connoisseur 178 (December 1971): 270.
- Lindquist-Cock, Elisabeth. "Frederic Church's Stereographic Vision." Art in America 61 (September-October 1973): 72, repro. 70.
- Stebbins, Theodore E., Jr. "Church, Frederic Edwin." In The Britannica Encyclopedia of American Art. Chicago, 1973: 116.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1975: 550, no. 831, color repro.
- Stebbins, Theodore E., Jr. The Hudson River School: 19th Century American Landscapes in the Wadsworth Atheneum. Hartford, 1976: 51.
- Brown, Milton W. American Art to 1900. New York, 1977: 339, repro. 340.
- Lindquist-Cock, Elizabeth. The Influence of Photography on American Landscape Painting. New York, 1977: 119, pl. 35 (detail), 227.
- Stebbins, Theordore E., Jr. Close Observation: Selected Sketches by Frederic E. Church. Exh. cat. Cooper-Hewitt Museum, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Washington, D.C., 1978: 48.
- Wilmerding, John. "Luminism: The Poetry of Light." Portfolio 1 (June-July 1979): repro. 29.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1980: 130, repro.
- Wilmerding, John. American Light: The Luminist Movement, 1850-1875, Paintings, Drawings, Photographs. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 17, 36, 121, 174, 184, repro. 120.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1980: 11, 15, 19, no. 31, color repro.
- Williams, William James. A Heritage of American Paintings from the National Gallery of Art. New York, 1981: color repro. 102-3, 119 detail, 121-122.
- Mrozek, Donald J. "The American Idea of Recreation and the Changing Role of the National Parks." Conspectus of History 1 (1982): 20.
- Stebbins, Theodore E., Jr., Carol Troyen, and Trevor J. Fairbrother. A New World: Masterpieces of American Painting, 1760-1910. Exh. cat. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Grand Palais, Paris. Boston, 1983: 249.
- Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 547, no. 822, color repro.
- Kelly, Franklin. "Frederic Church in the Tropics." Arts in Virginia 27 (1987): 32, 33, fig. 16.
- Kelly, Franklin. Frederic Edwin Church and the National Landscape. Washington, D.C., 1988: 126.
- Wilmerding, John. American Masterpieces from the National Gallery of Art. Rev. ed. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1988: 114, no. 34, color repro.
- Kelly, Franklin, Stephen J. Gould, and James Anthony Ryan. Frederic Edwin Church. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1989: 12, 14, 67-68, 163-164, 170, 203, no. 49, color repro. 125.
- Manthorne, Katherine Emma. Tropical Renaissance: North American Artists Exploring Latin America, 1839-1879. Washington and London, 1989: I, 60, repro. 61.
- Miller, David C. Dark Eden: The Swamp in Nineteenth Century American Culture. Cambridge, 1989: 113-116, fig. 4.2; pl. 5, misdated 1876.
- American Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 142, repro.
- National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 236, repro.
- Davis, John. The Landscape of Belief: Encountering the Holy Land in Nineteenth Century American Art and Culture. Princeton, 1996: 197.
- Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 63-68, color repro.
- Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin. American Paintings Before 1945 in the Wadsworth Atheneum. London, 1996: no. 213, repro.
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 306-307, no. 246, color repro.
The support is a relatively thin and fine plain-weave fabric mounted on the original stretcher. The panel-back stretcher has eleven members with mortise-and-tenon joins. A white ground layer was applied, over which a thin brown layer may have been laid. The paint was applied very thinly in most areas, with the darks particularly built up with many glazes. The highlights were more thickly painted, with some areas of impasto. The paint layer is generally in very good condition, with only scattered small losses and minor areas of \rabrasion. In 1988 discolored varnish was removed and the painting was restored. This conservation effort removed significant passages of inpaint from the trees in the middle distance at the center of the painting. The inpainting hid pentimenti formed by brushed underpaint that the artist used in laying out the major characteristics of the composition; the pentimenti were then subsequently inpainted to minimize visual disruption.