Posts Tagged ‘Olana NY State Historic Site’

(Part 2 of 2, Part 1 text and pictures below).

The pictures in the slide show below sum up my autumnal photographic impressions of the great landscape painter Frederic Church’s exotic mansion and estate Olana, overlooking the Hudson River. The grounds, plantings and  and ponds on the estate are the works of landscape architecture, not wild nature as usually painted by Church. The water effects that October day were magical. Rippling wavelets of mutating colors were combining and recombining in startling ways. A bit like my mental impressions of Olana’s slightly surreal Persian inspired mansion.

The question again is why Frederic Church –  one of our most celebrated landscape painters – apparently conceived of Olana as his greatest work of art, when estate and home are so unnatural, so exotic, so influenced by the non-indigenous.

To me, Church in his most famous paintings captured landscape as a drama, sometimes stupendous drama like his Niagara painting. In viewing them I can easily interpret nature as the stage for that drama, even when humans are absent or seemingly insignificant in the painting. Drama implicitly anthropomorphizes the landscape. It’s like Shakespeare’s world stage, and we humans are the players all. In the service of creating excitement and tension and moods, in effect dramatizing nature, whether in art or writing, the human can so easily take center stage.

Of course, the late 18th century and first half of 19th century were the high tide of the romantic movement in art and literature, of the fascination with the “sublime” in art and landscape, of finding spiritual solace and lessons in nature. Nature was also emblematic of personal storm and strife, and of emotional exultation. At about the same time,  Transcendentalists, especially Emerson and Thoreau, read nature in deeper moods, and their writing at times evinces a near immersion in nature’s medium, a pantheism, a nearing to what some of us today call deep ecology.

Clearly Church painted in a time when a new found appreciation of wild nature was in play. The question is whether Church was merely a very skillful painter of effect, or did he sense in nature something deeper, something beyond the human, beyond the emotional impact of the spectacular. His high estimation of startling, exotic Olana would seem to favor the former, but then artists can be notoriously silly about the inspiration for their own work.

Lake Tahoe, Albert Bierstadt

Whatever the role that artful effect had on the works of Church in painting and dramatizing nature back east, Albert Bierstadt out west had it all over him. Mark Twain, for one, thought Bierstadt’s monumental paintings pompously faked nature, which he noted could hold her own. Bierstadt’s “Lake Tahoe” is singularly contemptuous of reality. Here, nature is nothing. Effect is everything.

Considering the history of American landscape painting, and landscape photography for that matter, I have the uneasy impression that really seeing the land in its multitudinous of guises, seeing in nature’s forms the artistic equivalent of “deep ecology, is rare, maybe nearly impossible.

Photographer Ansel Adams’s iconic western landscapes ooze romantic drama. They dwarf the human scale, but they are carefully composed and printed to achieve striking effects calling up human emotions. Adam’s fellow Californian Edward Weston tried to move beyond what he called interpretation, to record nature as nature, the thingness of the object. I’m not sure what that means exactly.  But at times for me he records a rock as though the rock were thinking rock thoughts. Both Adam’s and Weston are great photographers. But maybe Weston looked deeper.

The Tetons and the Snake River, Ansel Adams

But back to the ramparts of the Hudson River. Olana on a crisp Fall day is a great outing. Olana is impressive historically and the view is a knockout, or at least it was that October day. The trouble is, I ask too many questions.     SRE


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Last month on a family trip “back east” we visited Olana, the fabulous fantasy mansion built by famous Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church (1826 – 1900). Now a New York State Historic Site, Olana is an elaborate Persian-inspired home perched at the top of its surrounding immaculately planned and landscaped rolling 250 acres. It was on this hilltop that 18-year-old Church came to study and paint the spectacular views across the Hudson west toward the Catskills in the company of his mentor Thomas Cole, generally considered the father of the first uniquely American style of painting, the Hudson River School. In 1867 Church purchased the first of several pieces of Olana’s land and spent until the completion of his large studio in 1890, altering and “perfecting” both the building and its original natural surroundings.

Heart of the Andes

Church’s first successes however did not come from his luminous Hudson River landscapes, but rather from the startlingly giant paintings of the wonders of nature he had viewed in his world travels. They include the famous paintings: Niagara (1857, 3 1/2  by 7 1/2 feet), The Heart of the Andes (1859, 5 by 10 feet),  and Aurora Borealis (1865, 4 1/2  x 7 feet).

Niagara Falls

But what we encountered on Olana’s tour was an artist’s home with so little light. The dining room, filled with obvious copies of European paintings, was only missing the heraldic flags to qualify as a version of the Hearst castle.

And yet, Church considered Olana—this ornately painted and corniced building (to me really not a very homey home) with its totally human-manipulated grounds—his greatest artistic achievement. Church, the landscape painter? The painter of nature? This filled me with a vague sense of dis-ease, of cognitive dissonance. That the tour focused on two issues: this house and how much money Church made off his paintings, rather than on the art Church created (and the viewscape he purchased to preserve it undisturbed for himself as the subject for his painting) just added to the sense of puzzlement.

My brief experience at Olana—with its ornate, decidedly inorganic forms, its lordly positioning on the highest hill and its potpourri of old world architecture—raised  a lot of questions. Why would an artist considered to be one of our greatest landscape painters, one who helped define the American sensibility of nature, why would he consider Olana (in one sense an egotistical blot on a still inspiring landscape) to be his greatest work?  (to be continued…)

AN OLANA SLIDESHOW (All photos © SR Euston)

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