Oil on canvas, 1899. 530x650 mm; 20 7/8x25 5/8 inches. Signed, dated and annotated in oil, lower right recto.
Church (1842-1924) was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, then a small and undeveloped town of the western frontier. Grand Rapids provided no form of art education until 1854, when the Dutch artist Marinus Harting began teaching art lessons; Church was able to attend using his earnings from delivering newspapers. Church moved to Chicago in 1855 to work for the American Express Company, as his parents expected him to pursue a career in business (despite an early and continued interest in drawing). Following his service in the Civil War (Church was a member of the Chicago Light Artillery), he decided to pursue art full time and studied for several years at Chicago's Academy of Design before relocating permanently to New York in 1870 for illustration work. He quickly began a successful career as an illustrator, drawing for publications such as Harper's Bazaar and the Century Magazine.
Church and some fellow New York artists, discovering that the National Academy of Design (where they had been studying) would no longer be offering classes, banded together to start a new institution: the Art Students League. Church was instrumental in the League's formative years, helping formalize the organization and acting as chairman of the art committee. While continuing to illustrate for magazines and books, Church also began painting to supplement his income, exhibiting regularly from 1874 onward. Interested since childhood in drawing animals, he frequently depicted animals in his mature paintings and watercolors, visiting the Bronx Zoo and the Barnum & Bailey's circus premises to sketch. Church's most iconic paintings, like A Lesson in Wisdom, are allegorical compositions of ethereal women with animals rendered gracefully with a rich palette and warm light.