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Rainy Season in the Tropics
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alampel's picture

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“Double rainbow!!! All the way across the sky! What does this mean?”

It turns out that the elusive and majestic double rainbow hasn’t only been the subject of viral YouTube videos - it’s also been featured in a 19th century masterpiece in which Frederic Edwin Church asks himself the same, enduring question. Even though the video shows only admiration for the natural phenomenon, Church’s double rainbow is tinged with a sense of sadness.

Although the trip resulted in this beautiful painting, Church and his wife Isabel set out for Jamaica to help mend their broken hearts. Church’s two children had fallen ill and ultimately died of diphtheria just one week apart in March of 1865. Like so many of today’s yuppie tourists who go to tropical places to forget their troubles, the Churches sought refuge in exploring the wilderness of Jamaica. I’m sure the couple saw many beautiful scenes during their travels, but if this particular scene looks too good to be true, that’s because it is.

Many of Church’s paintings, including this one, were inspired by the sights he had seen during his travels, but the finished result always looked way better than reality. This was because his awe-inspiring scenes are all pretty much made up. In Church’s defense, he wasn’t totally lying - just embellishing the truth by amping up the details. Lots of the beautiful scenery in this painting, including the rainbow and the plants, came from things he had actually seen and sketched on his vacation. The double rainbow is rendered perfectly according to how they appear in nature, with one rainbow reflecting in a reversed order the colors of the other rainbow. The plants featured in the painting are based on sketches that Church did from what he experienced in nature during his Jamaica trip.

However, Church also combined elements of different scenes to create perfect, theatrical landscapes charged with emotion. So, again, everything is based on things he did see but were just made to look better than they really were. Don’t judge. You know you’ve used filters to make your pictures look cooler! In this case, he was trying to capture the hope he felt at the prospect of returning to America and attempting to start a new family with his wife. Widely recognized as a symbol of hope, the rainbow could also represent how Church felt about the future of America, which had survived the end of the Civil War just one year before Church finished this painting.

Just as there must be a storm before a rainbow, so too does Church’s image carry the double edge of chaos and order, death and rebirth. His children had to die before he and Isabel found the courage to move on, and the country first had to go to war before it attempted to unite and resolve its problems. Church was able to channel all these angsty feels into one, super-charged image. And if pictures of rainbows don’t make you feel like anything can happen...you're lying. 

 

Sources

Sources

  1. Avery, Kevin J. “Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900).” The Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. August 2009. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/chur/hd_chur.htm.
  2. Google. Google Arts & Culture. “Rainy Season in the Tropics.” 2017. https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/beta/asset/FgEWDU2Lt9aDKA
  3. Howat, John K. American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1987.