Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Center of the world: Frederic Church’s Olana

View of Olana
Presented to the Club by Ronald Trabulsi on Monday evening, March 23, 2009

The year was 1859 and the subject of our paper tonight, the artist Frederic Edwin Church, was exhibiting his latest painting, “Heart of the Andes,” in New York City. His exhibition of this very large painting — 5 1/2 by 10 feet in size — was unusual — actually unique.

He charged 25 cents admission (the equivalent of about $5 today) to people who wanted to see it. And people came in droves — about 600 a day came into a strategically darkened room with spotlights on the painting. Opera glasses were provided to examine the painting's details. It was a dramatic experience, very successful and well publicized. Church was 33 years old at the time and considered to be America's most notable painter. He was at the top of the new country's artistic echelon and an interesting man in many respects.

Church was born in 1826 in Hartford, Connecticut. His father, Joseph Church, was a wealthy silversmith and watchmaker who subsequently became an official and director of Aetna Life Insurance Company. Church's grandfather, Samuel Church, incidentally, founded the first paper mill in Lee, Massachusetts.

In 1844 at the age of 18, Church became the only pupil of Thomas Cole, who was a well known landscape artist at the time, and who lived in Catskill, New York. Church and Cole roamed the nearby Catskills and the Hudson River environs making hundreds of sketches of the landscapes of the area. One year later, in 1845, Church had his first painting exhibition at the National Academy of Design in New York. His work was widely acclaimed.

During the next 20 years Church traveled the world extensively — from the Arctic to the tropics. His South American travels in the 1850's which eventually resulted in the earlier discussed painting, “Heart of the Andes,” was financed by Cyrus West Field who wanted to use Church's paintings to lure investors to his South American ventures. “Heart of the Andes” was sold shortly after its exhibition in New York for $10,000 — the highest price paid at that time for the work of a living artist. (The painting is now in the Metropolitan Museum where he was a trustee for almost 20 years.)

Church's meteoric rise in the 1840's and 1850's, as one critic has said, was fueled by the tumult of the times. His landscapes gave pictorial voice to the political, social, and cultural issues that concerned many who saw his paintings. His construction of ideal American landscapes and dreamy South American acadias spoke of the seemingly infinite riches of New World nature at the same time as they reaffirmed man's right to use and enjoy those bounties. Church combined intricate, precise details with sweeping compositions. His firm faith in the rightness of American national identity and its foundation in Protestantism resonated deeply with the admirers of his paintings. He and his art were perfectly suited to the moment in American history. As was said of Thomas Cole, his teacher, he depicted nature, especially American nature, as the “visible hand of God.” But, aside from the high price that his art commanded, the New York exhibition was notable for another reason, too. One of the visitors was a young lady by the name of Isabel Carnes.

Church told a friend that on seeing her he “glimpsed a ravishing vision, a star illuminated with a light never before seen on land or sea.” He married her the following year.

By this time, in 1860, Church had a studio on 10th Street in New York, but he wanted a place in the country that would be suitable for raising a family, and his thoughts turned to the Hudson River area near Catskill where he had wandered as a pupil with Thomas Cole years before.

And so, shortly before his wedding, Church purchased 126 acres of fields and woods overlooking the Hudson — just south of where the Rip Van Winkle Bridge now crosses the river near the city of Hudson. He built a small house, called Cosy Cottage, and then in 1867 he acquired additional acreage that included the adjacent hilltop with sweeping views for miles around. He engaged the noted architect Richard Morris Hunt to design a French chateau for the summit.

The Churches had had two children — a boy and a girl — who both died of diphtheria when very young. Looking for a change of scene to assuage their grief the couple embarked on a long journey to Europe and the Middle East. The fascinating result of this trip was a complete change of plans for the house. Instead of a French chateau to be built overlooking the Hudson, the Churches changed architects and became determined to build and furnish a Persian feudal castle. And that is what is there today.

Church essentially was his own architect, getting help primarily with structural and mechanical issues. He designed the building and all its ornamentation. His and Isabel's three months in the Middle East led to a plan for a traditional Damascus house with thick fortress-like stone walls and a courtyard with rooms radiating from it. The rooms are stenciled in colors, some metallic and some pastel, with mirrors on walls and ceilings that are highly decorated and placed to reflect light to great advantage.

Church designed and drew stencils on the archways dividing interior spaces of the house debased on Persian patterns and colors that he sketched whileabroad. Completion of the woodwork and painted decoration of the first floor took at least four years. No aspect of the decoration was left to chance. Mixing pigments on his palette, he prepared color swatches for the walls and ceiling of each room. The Arabic calligraphy over the entry door translates as “Welcome.''

In furnishing the house, one of Church's first aims was to create a repository for the objects of civilization. (This man had no small goals.) The house became a museum of fine arts, rich in bronzes, paintings, sculptures, and antique and artistic specimens from all over the world. The rooms are filled with exotic objects: painted tables from Kashmir, rococo revival furniture inherited from his father, and furniture built to Church's own designs are intermingled with Persian and Syrian metalware, Mexican religious statuary, and Turkish rugs.

Church conceived this collection and began to collect it while he was in the Middle East. He sent at least 15 crates of goods home from his trip.

But not only did he build his Persian fortress on the hill 600 feet above the Hudson, h set out to transform the property from an agricultural landscape into an ornamental farm. He developed the landscape as consciously as he created a painting. Over a period of thirty years he transformed his property. It was still to be a working, profitable farm, but a part of its bounty was to be beauty. Orchards and fields of corn, hay and rye joined the flower and vegetable gardens. There were livestock and buildings to house them. He planted thousands of trees set out on the slopes. A swampy stream became a lake with edges carefully sculpted to echo the shape of the Hudson River beyond. He had five and a half miles of carriage roads put in that were strategically placed to show views of open fields, dark hemlock forests, sun-dappled woodlands, and serene bodies of water. (He had, incidentally, sent three white donkeys back from Syria to pull pleasure carts on the paths.)

After the American Civil War and as the 1870s progressed, American taste in art changed dramatically. Fewer and fewer people, including Church himself, looked to the natural world as an affirmation of divine order and wisdom. His large paintings showing the grandeur and perfection of nature declined severely in popularity. Younger painters like Winslow Homer became popular, painting more intimate scenes of American citizens as soldiers, farmers, school teachers, and so on. There was much more interest in all things foreign.

In 1876 Church had his first attack of inflammatory rheumatism which led him to paint with his left hand. By 1880 his painting activity declined markedly. His interest in his estate on the Hudson, however, continued strong. There Church was creating a world — in his Persian fortress — that was a safe and perfect place for himself and Isabel and the four children they now had.

It wasn't until 1880 that the Churches settled on a name for their property. It was, after much discussion, to be called “Olana'' — a variation on the name of a fortress house in ancient Persia. Church called his house and its 250 acres of romantically designed grounds “the Center of the world,” By 1891 one visitor called it “a perfect Eden of picturesque beauty.” By that time Church had spent 30 years creating it. It was truly his “Center of the world.”

Frederic Church died in 1900. His wife had died the year before. The estate was left to their son Louis who had managed it for several years for them. He and his wife Sally lived there, modernizing it a bit, but essentially leaving it and the furnishings unchanged. Louis died in 1943, and Sally lived there until her death in 1964 — again with a keen interest in preserving it intact.

After her death, David Huntinton, an art history professor at Smith College, worked to save the property from being sold and the contents auctioned off. An energetic fund raising campaign ensued. And in 1966, with both private contributions and funds appropriated by the New York State legislature under the leadership of Governor Nelson Rockefeller (who had been enlisted because of his long-time support of the arts), the house and property were purchased and the title was conveyed to the State of New York. It is now a New York State Historic site — and well worth a visit to Church's “Center of the world.”

Photo by Orlando's World of Photos, used under Creative Commons Attribution License.