Upstate New York – the Hudson River Valley in particular – may be known for a great many things, including gorgeous vistas, quaint towns, and classic Victorian architecture. What a visitor may not expect to find among the rolling hills and quiet valleys is Olana, the distinctly original, Persian-themed residence of artist Frederic E. Church. A student of Thomas Cole, Church earned his own place among the ranks of the great Hudson River School painters during the 19th century. Olana eventually became Church’s labor of love, and it serves as the crowning jewel of over 250 acres of property, offering commanding views of the nearby Hudson River and surrounding countryside.
The road leading up to the house winds its way through a picturesque landscape of manicured lawns, ponds, and surprisingly-ordered stands of trees. At first glance, these features may seem to be nothing more than the result of diligent upkeep, but (as I soon learned) everything on Church’s property is there for a purpose. He actually created the pond to complement the Hudson’s shimmering curves, and trees were planted or removed in accord with how they affected the overall vista. In other words, instead of painting with his familiar oils, Church used nature as his canvas and created a masterwork with the landscapes that he saw all around him.
Olana’s interior clearly reflects Church’s love of Persian design, but it was never intended to be purely imitative. He deviated from tradition as needed in order to incorporate his own ideas and other influences, creating a fanciful-yet-cohesive environment in the process. Strangely enough, I found that it was Church’s paintings that persistently drew my eye; the house boasts an extensive collection of sketches in addition to a small handful of finished works that have been reclaimed over the years. Perhaps it was something as simple as seeing such masterfully done landscapes presented on such a grand scale: the originals easily measure several feet high/wide. Church’s work is both romantic and realistic, blending vibrant colors and striking illumination with fine detail. The result can stir wanderlust in even the most travel-hardened soul.
During my visit, I was reminded of the fact that Church and his contemporaries were working in an era when photography was still largely inaccessible to the masses. Techniques and technologies were still being refined, and taking a camera out into the field to capture such magnificent scenery could prove to be no small endeavor. Beyond the camera itself (which was far from being “handheld” in the sense that we know today), a photographer would need to carry along a plentiful supply of glass plates, chemicals, a tent to serve as a darkroom, and more. As a result, paintings were a common way for the general public to catch a rare glimpse of wild and foreign places.
My visit to Olana proved to be full of unexpected discoveries. Beyond the house itself, which serves as a wonderful example of how imagination and artistry can combine to produce something of great enduring beauty and originality, the way that Church altered Olana’s property to complement and improve existing views is both impressive and unique. Church’s paintings were a delight to behold as well. I found myself thinking about the value of pursuing one’s deepest passions and dedicating oneself to the pursuit of mastery, whether in art, music, or anything else. Church left a legacy of work that is still enjoyed and appreciated today, but such an accomplishment requires more than just a casual, passing interest or fair-weather desire. Neither Church’s tremendous success as a painter, nor the construction, expansion, and development of his beloved Olana and its grounds happened overnight: both required constant effort, dedication, a willingness to learn, and an enduring sense of purpose that supercedes individual obstacles or setbacks. In today’s world of instant gratification and modern conveniences – ones that can so easily be taken for granted – I found Olana to be a valuable reminder of what it takes to realize one’s vision and turn a dream into a reality.