Revitalizing a Lost Artist:  F. Edwin Church (1876–1975)

By the Archives
November 9, 2023
Detail of grayscale photograph of F. Edwin Church extending his right arm and brush to paint a still life of a flower arrangement.

Grayscale photograph of F. Edwin Church extending his right arm and brush to paint a still life of a flower arrangement, which is on an easel. The flowers are in the background on a support covered with a light-colored tablecloth with small cross designs. In his left hand he holds a palette, and next to him are supplies and rags.
Mary S. Grothe. Photograph of F. Edwin Church painting a floral arrangement, circa 1970. F. Edwin Church papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

I have been researching F. (Frederic) Edwin Church (1876–1975) for over twenty years. Until I met my late husband, a grandson of the artist, I belonged to the scores of people who had never heard of this “other” Frederic Edwin Church. When I began the F. Edwin Church (1876–1975) Online Catalogue Raisonné Project, it was with a sense of determination and urgency. Older generations of his family were leaving us, and with them, firsthand impressions of the artist were being lost. As a relatively forgotten artist, and before the advent of the internet, it was nearly impossible to find information on him. His family’s recollections, and the paintings and papers they kept, helped me form the basis of his history. Further research on my part in libraries and institutes, and online, served to greatly expand that history, especially his exhibition records. Determined that he not slip through the cracks of history, I decided to take on his catalogue raisonné. Little did I know what that would entail, but it is a gratifying, challenging pursuit and is especially rewarding when one of his paintings is located. Placing Church’s papers at the Archives of American Art has also been part of this work.

Researching Fred is very difficult due to the confusion of having the same name as the Hudson River artist, Frederic Edwin Church (1828–1900) and the large accumulation of information available about that artist. F. Edwin Church’s father, Elihu Dwight Church, knew the Hudson River artist and simply named his fourth son in honor of him. In order to distinguish himself from the other artist Fred ultimately chose to sign his works, F. Edwin Church. The name duplication always impedes research, which makes the gift of artist’s papers his granddaughter, Mary S. Grothe, had inherited all the more important.

The donation of Church’s papers in November 2021 was done literally as a death bed promise I made to Mary, who gave the papers to me shortly before she died. They were precious to her—a link to a beloved person in her life. As I was developing the idea of creating the catalogue raisonné, Mary and I searched for his artwork and discussed plans for the future of materials she stored. They needed to be in a place they would be appreciated, protected, and accessible. The papers were nearly lost forever after the artist’s death as his estate was hastily dispersed. In the 1970s, Mary was a professional photographer, becoming one of the leading trackside photographers of motorcycle road racing in the country. She ran the business from home. When her grandfather died in 1975, she was allowed to choose her allotment from his estate. She selected several of his paintings, a few pieces of furniture, and some file cabinets that she thought would be useful for keeping her business organized. When the items were delivered, to her surprise, the file cabinets were filled her grandfather’s papers. Had she not randomly selected those cabinets, it is likely that everything would have ended up in the landfill—years later the papers also narrowly missed being destroyed in a house fire in which some of his paintings were lost. Unforeseen circumstances such as these underscore the importance of having the papers stored securely at the Archives. Living in the Northern Virginia area, Mary agreed that the Archives would be the most logical and beneficial place to donate her collection. The papers she had carefully preserved over forty-five years cover a broad selection of subjects about her grandfather and include photographs she took of him in his early nineties—including a portrait of him at his easel painting a floral arrangement.

Unfinished watercolor and pencil sketch on gray paper showing a scene outside of a carousel in a park. There are two trees in the foreground; several adult figures (mainly women) dressed in black, two with aprons; a small child wearing a blue coat and bonnet, a baby in a yellow buggy with a pink hat and read cot, and a baby in a pink bonnet and coat in another buggy. Two animals on the carousel are possibly a tiger and an elephant.
This sketch was likely made during Church's study at the Académie Julian in Paris. Frederic Edwin Church. Pencil and watercolor sketch of the carousel in Luxembourg Park, Paris, circa 1905. F. Edwin Church papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Many items in the collection will help give an overview of Fred’s life and career. For genealogists, his papers contain an extensive family tree showing, as Church had always claimed, that his family was not related to the Hudson River School artist. There is also a January 16, 1923, letter from Frederick Stuart Church (1842–1924) with a note on family branches. On the theme of name identity, there are letters where he refutes people’s inquiries into his lineage.

Historians will enjoy looking at the ornate WWI certificate he received for serving as a 2nd Lieutenant in the New York City military forces. Certificates for life memberships in the New York Zoological Society and the American Museum of Natural History confirm Church’s fascination with the natural world. Another worth mentioning is from New York’s Department of Public Instruction for his father who taught art in the public schools and was a painter himself until he took over the family business, Church & Dwight. Like his father, Fred also belonged to the Grolier Club. While his father collected books on Americana, Fred pursued collecting Japanese prints which would influence some of his works. A handwritten list, written in response to a question from his granddaughter Mary about which famous artists he knew and were his friends, and a selection of Christmas cards demonstrate his relationships with other artists including Harry Hoffman, William Glackens, Charles Bittenger, Everett Warner, Knowles Hare, Wallace Morgan, and others. There is also a note from Clark Vorhees on his election to life membership in the Lyme Art Association.

Interior page of magazine with text printed in black ink and three grayscale reproductions of paintings. At top left, an image of a woman in fancy dress standing with one hand on her hip and the other on her chest, standing in front of a decorative study of a peacock. On top right, an image of two girls seated at a table, both in light-colored dresses. One with is focused on sewing and the other looks directly at the viewer with one hand on a book and the other pressed against her face while her elbow rests

Page 358 of Harper's Weekly, April 8, 1916, vol 62, no. 3094, 1916 April 8. F. Edwin Church papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Story in Harper's Weekly announcing F. Edwin Church as the winner of the National Academy of Design's Thomas B. Clark Prize for The Peacock Girl, 1916.

Printed receipt from Academie Julian for a studio space and easel with black ink on cream paper with various fonts, and names and dates handwritten in black ink. In the upper right-hand corner is an official stamp of the French Republic in blue ink. An address on the bottom right has a marking from a red wax pencil.

Académie Julian. Receipt for lease of studio space and easel at Académie Julian, 1905 October 7. F. Edwin Church papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Church's receipt for a studio space and easel at Passage des Panoramas during his study at Académie Julian.

Cover of folded exhibition invitation with sans serif text in black ink, and a reproduction of a painting of a horse and buggy in front of a home with tree branches in the foreground in grayscale. RIGHT: Interior of folded exhibition invitation with a list of twenty-seven paintings in sans serif text printed in black ink.

Montross Gallery. Cover and interior page of invitation for F. Edwin Church, Exhibition of Paintings, 1927 January 17 through 29. F. Edwin Church papers. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Invitation for Church's one-man show at Montross Gallery in 1927. 

One of the papers that guided my initial research is the biographical page from the Salmagundi Club, where he demonstrates his choice of calling himself F. Edwin Church. It contains Church’s educational background, places where he exhibited, and specifically notes the Thomas B. Clark Prize he was awarded by the National Academy of Design for best figurative composition with The Peacock Girl in 1916. Equally significant are a 1905 receipt from the Académie Julian in Paris documenting his study there and the acceptance notice for a portrait of his wife to the 1906 Salon. Two important exhibition catalogues should also be noted. His one-man show at Montross Gallery in New York City in 1927, and his 1975 Retrospective at the Country Art Gallery in Locust Valley, New York, which has a magnificent photograph of him painting The Peacock Screen, on the cover. Church also took part in an important exhibition in New York City at Ainslie Galleries of his undersea paintings and landscapes of Haiti after accompanying William Beebe, the famous naturalist and marine biologist, on scientific expedition there in 1927.

Outside of Fred’s papers, I have found other references to him in the Archives. The Allied Artists of America records have some insights to his involvement with that art association, in which he was a lifelong member. The Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Peter A. Juley & Son Collection also contains photographs of a few of his paintings.

F. Edwin Church’s art is predominantly still owned by family members and not on public view. My ongoing work in recovering Fred’s oeuvre and his story has helped his family recognize that these are something more than mementos—they had not been aware of the extent of his exhibition record which includes many of the works they own. With their encouragement, I continue to document and find his art and raise awareness for what I consider to be much more than “just Grandpa’s paintings.” But, because his work has been sequestered for decades, the public remains largely unaware of him. Now, with his papers at the Archives, and the raisonné website providing the impetus, F. Edwin Church’s art and legacy will be available for discovery by a new generation.


Jan Wiley is the director of the F. Edwin Church (1876–1975) Catalogue Raisonné Project ( She is an amateur artist who studied art in college and then was the assistant manager at an art supply and conservation picture framing store for several years in Northern Virginia. She now lives on a farm in Virginia, dabbles in art and gardening, runs her dog, Tasha, over agility courses… and spends countless happy hours doing art research.


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