In the 1850s Frederic Edwin Church became fully established as the great American landscape painter. Around 1870, and following his travels in America and the “Old World”, he decided to build Olana, the mansion that would become his private Eden on the banks of the Hudson River. Church spent lengthy periods there, painting the changing landscape and light at different times of the year.
Autumn depicts a bend in the river with the changing hues of the season. A warm, misty background light suffuses the entire scene, which is framed by a large tree on the left and a single rock on the right bank. The vegetation that covers the rocks and tree trunks ranges in tone from green to red and is reflected in the waters of the river. The painting was probably commissioned by William Henry Osborn, a friend and collector of Church’s work who shared the artist’s fascination with nature.
During the 1870s, on returning from his lengthy tour of Europe and the Near East, Church supervised the construction of Olana, a grand neo-Persian-style mansion where he would spend the last period of his life. From his new dwelling overlooking the Hudson River, Church captured in his paintings the seasonal changes in the landscape. Autumn, from the Thyssen-Bornemisza collection, was painted for his great friend and patron William Henry Osborn (1820‒1894), the owner of Castle Rock, a stone-built castle on the banks of the Hudson River. Church and Osborn shared the same enthusiasm for the autumn colours, as borne out by the letter the painter wrote to his friend in autumn 1870: “I can fancy your enjoyment of the weather — There is something peculiarly fascinating to me in this period of the Autumn Season.” Church mentions the appeal autumn holds for him in another letter written to his friend the landscape painter Jervis McEntee: “When autumn fires light up the landscape you will see Nature’s palette set with her most precious... colors.”
Here, as in the latter works of Joseph Turner, with whom Church is sometimes compared, the light is the central feature of the composition. However, in addition to these romantic aspects consideration should be given to Church’s growing interest in capturing the effects of light and atmospheric changes, which stemmed from his study of the same scientific treatises used by his Impressionist contemporaries. Proof of this is the fact that his library at Olana included works such as John Tyndall’s Forms of Water in Clouds and Rivers (1872), Eugene Lommel’s Nature of Light with a General Account of Physical Optics (1876) and Ogden Rood’s Modern Chromatics with Application to Art and Industry (1879).