Visiting Olana and the Hudson River

OlanaWhile in upstate New York, we managed a quick visit to Olana, the castle-like home of Frederic Edwin Church, the 19th century landscape painter.

I’ve long admired the Hudson River School of painting, a style that celebrated nature, and especially the landscapes of the New World. During the 19th century it was hot stuff, but it fell out of favor when those darned impressionists brought their pastel-colored personal impressions to the art world. Fauvism (along with modernism) has ruled the art world for the last 100 years, but I think people are rediscovering the realist painters of the past.

Church was one of the most famous of the Hudson River School, known not just for his famous iceberg paintings, he but also paintings of the dark brooding Catskill forests and luminous skies reflecting in the shining Hudson River. Alive when artists could attain rock star status, Church was a box office draw. He also came from money, and had wealth at his fingertips.  So he built a beautiful, over-ornamented home on a hill top overlooking the river valley.

OlanaDetailOlana is a sort of homage to a Victorian-era Persian fantasy. There are Middle-Eastern motifs everywhere you look, right down to fake-Arabic script on the wall panels. Once breathtakingly colorful (Glittery silver and gold decorative painting on the door! Bright yellow drapes! Burgundy and green velvet furniture!), the colors have faded to the muted tones we associate with old photographs.

I have to admit, it’s a little like visiting the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose. It’s a bit over the top, and it’s hard to imagine people actually living and visiting amidst the ornamentation. But how prejudice against decoration are my 21st-century eyes, having been trained and honed by the naked lines and sparsity of mid-20th century modern?

The Victorian era was all about ornamentation, and Olana is a tribute to that design ethic. But more than that, the house is a series of frames for the surrounding landscape. Church wanted the house to frame his beloved Hudson River Valley, and every window and door opens on some incredible view (Unfortunately, a storm obscured the vistas when we were there, and so we only had more intimate views). Even the ornamental balustrades frame views in miniature.


It’s something I need to learn more about, this framing of the landscape. Too often I begin drawing before I’ve properly figured out the design of the landscape I’m trying to paint. Then I am overwhelmed by the whole thing and my painting (and my mood) falls apart.