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The Hudson Valley's Big Draw

Frederic Church's Greatest Landscape Was His N.Y. Mansion

By Tom O'Brien
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 24, 2000; Page E01

Roam even half-awake through enough museums and you get the impression that Romantic artists loved landscapes. But Frederic Edwin Church went further, painting "earthscapes," such as the monumental "Niagara" and "The Heart of the Andes."

High on a bluff near the reviving arts boom town of Hudson, N.Y., you can see Church's best "earthscape"--not one he depicted, but one he designed: Olana, a Persian-style mansion overlooking the river he loved. There are few better views in eastern North America. And if you visit on a brisk autumn day, surrounded by flaming foliage and the geologic formations Church loved to paint, so much the better.

The best views face south, downriver: You can look down the Hudson Valley for scores of miles. To the west, you can see straight across the last ridges of the Catskills, which appear in so many of Church's canvases.

Church had first seen the place in 1844 when visiting his mentor, Thomas Cole, one of the founders of the Hudson River School of painting. In the 1870s, with his wife, Isabel, and architect Calvert Vaux, Church designed and built Olana there. Rarely shy of excess, Church wrote to a friend that Olana was "the center of the world . . . and I own it."

Church was, annoyingly, both rich and famous. Scion of a wealthy Hartford family, he sold "Niagara," now at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, for $12,500 in 1857. At the time, it was the highest price paid for any American art work. Two years later, he exhibited "The Heart of the Andes," now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, of which he was a founding trustee in 1870. Some 12,000 visitors paid a quarter each at Church's Greenwich Village studio to see the 10-by-5 1/2-foot work, which was surrounded by potted foliage and lit by special gas lamps to hype its topographical realism.

Olana--"treasure place," the name of a Persian fortress--is set in the lush central region of the Hudson Valley, an area dotted with splashy mansions owned by power clans like the Livingstons and Vanderbilts (where the commodore installed his own rail track). But none is as original, exotic or windswept as Church's eccentric masterpiece.

The interior is filled not only with nearly 70 paintings and sketches but numerous Near Eastern artifacts gathered on an 1867-68 trip through Syria and Palestine. The exterior resembles a Moorish villa, with a main tower topped by a crow's nest. Alone on the heights, Olana is both highly civilized and alive with the energy of the landscape.

Church blended the wall paints for each room from his own palette, created stencils with Arabic designs and symbols, built Moorish screens for doors and windows, and positioned the windows to look out upon and frame what he called "a living landscape."

Outside, 250 acres of meadows and woods encircle the house. Inside, you are surrounded by minor paintings and studies of Church's famous finished works now hanging in museums around the country. You walk through the rooms, stunned to see the Coles that Church owned, a Perugino here, perhaps a Salvator Rosa (authorship is debated) there, or a bit of the Parthenon lying on the studio floor. Olana is a museum, a window on space, and an American master's greatest work of art.

Olana is also a case of 19th-century architectural revivalism, a trend that morphed from the neoclassical through the Gothic revival of the 1820s, and later the Renaissance and Romanesque. Touches of Egyptian revivalism can be found in some domestic architecture and in Cleopatra's Needle, the obelisk that Church helped site in Central Park near the Met. Olana embodies Orientalism, the most extraordinary of his obsessions with the past.

Church was always fascinated by the exotic, looking for nature in its most pure form. Although he painted the Catskills and was Cole's student until his mentor died in 1848, many of Church's paintings are about other places and their titanic spectacles, such as South American volcanoes and Labrador icebergs. Olana was just another step in his passion for something beyond.

But there are other factors, says Olana curator Evelyn Trebilcock. Church took from Cole a fascination with the passage of empires, and the Near East fed his curiosity. He and his wife visited there following the deaths of their first two children from diphtheria, says Trebilcock, and after Darwin's 1859 "Origin of Species" shocked Church's faith in a benign nature. "To see the land of the Bible and spots where the events of the Bible took place had special spiritual meaning," she says.

One of Olana's most impressive rooms is the sitting room, where Church hung his large painting, "El-Kasne--The Ruins at Petra," which depicts an ancient treasury in what is now Jordan. A fiery pink radiates from the sun-glazed ruin at the center of the work, and is picked up by the bright pink marble framing the fireplace below. Vegetation beneath the ruin is reflected in the light green ceiling and surrounding artifacts.

Some guests grouse about Olana's dark hues, says Trebilcock. But "this is what the 19th-century taste was like," she says, explaining the absence of spotlights to brighten the paintings. You have to "approach Olana as a historic house, not the National Gallery."

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