Many of the paintings that emerged from my favorite movement in American art, The Hudson River School, also had roots in this area. After studying here with Thomas Cole, who is regarded as the father and founder of the School, landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church returned in 1870 to build his dream house, the Persian-inspired Olana. Visiting the house during our recent holiday was the fulfillment of a long held wish.
Although Church was a wildly successful painter during his lifetime, he had the advantage of starting out with family money that enabled him to travel. Many of his best-known, large scale paintings began as sketches in far-off locations - the Middle East, South America and the Arctic.
While Church never actually made it to Persia, he did travel in the regions that are now Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt - incredible journeys at that time - and from architecture viewed on those trips and images gleaned from books he developed the designs for building and decorating Olana which was named for an ancient Persian fortress and treasure-house.
The house is nearly perfectly preserved as it was during Church's lifetime. His daughter-in-law, Sally, who was Olana's last resident, maintained it as a museum to Church and his beloved wife Isabel. After Sally's death in 1964 the house, its furnishings, and the large number of Church's paintings it contained were rescued from auction by a group of private citizens with the support of then-Governor Nelson Rockefeller.
The house is sited on a high promontory and from several rooms, through large arched windows, are absolutely extraordinary views of the Hudson River Valley. The execution of the architecture treats the views as painterly subjects.
Interior photography is not permitted as much of the woodwork is painted with elaborate stenciling designed by Church and every effort is being taken to preserve it. The following five images are from Olana's website where you can 'virtually' tour four rooms.
The front door from the interior of the vestibule; the Arabic symbol painted on the glass means 'welcome.'
The view from the vestibule through the large central room which was inspired by the open-air courtyards found in the interiors of middle-Eastern homes. The window at the very end frames the view from Church's studio.
The central court which forms the axis of the house and from which all the ground floor rooms are accessible.
A sample of the intricately detailed interior painting.
The dining room. While we waited outside for our tour to begin, I wondered at the long windowless expanse to the right of the front door. It was planned to accommodate this gallery wall where Church displayed old-master style paintings collected on his tours of Europe. In spite of his status as a true master among his contemporaries, Church was not an art snob. Many of the paintings he purchased were of no significant value. He bought images he liked and on some of the canvases he even made small changes or 'corrections.'
Isabel's study. The painting over the fireplace, Church's El Khasné, Petra, was a gift to Isabel from her husband. While Isabel accompanied Church on a tour of Holy Land sites in 1867 and 1868, she did not join him on the four week trip to Petra and he painted the monumental canvas to share what he saw with her.
Isabel was only four feet, nine inches tall. The tiny desk here in her study was specially made to accommodate her petite proportions. The large ogee arch window on the left is one of several on the first floor that frame the stunning long-range views of the river and valley.
Olana is rare among historic houses in that everything it contains is original. In Church's studio his easels, paints and brushes remain.
Church considered the landscape surrounding the house a continuation of his architectural canvas. Every approach, view and pathway was thoughtfully planned. There is a small and charming flower garden just below the house.
Long range views take in a pond, farmland that supplied Olana's kitchen and the Hudson River. There is a fascinating piece on the history of Church's cultivation of the property - from his original purchase of a farm below the house, the house's eventual siting, and the full development of the 250-acre landscape on Olana's website here.
The pond near the bottom of the drive.