Art: Blockbusters of An Inventive Showman

American master Frederic Edwin Church's spectacular 19th century landscapes were the CinemaScope of his age

Fires, floods, volcanoes, crags, waterfalls, roaring or expectantly hushed seas -- this imagery of nature as spectacle, the romantic sublime, has never gone out of style in America, though it migrated to the movies in the 20th century. In the 19th, however, it was still firmly ensconced in painting, and at its zenith -- the 1850s and 1860s -- its star was Frederic Edwin Church, whose admirers compared him (for various reasons) with Lord Byron, Balboa and J.M.W. Turner. When Church showed a single landscape, Americans would turn out to see it in the kind of droves that require the pull...

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