The Vision of Frederick Church

Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826 - 1900 ), Niagara, 1857, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund) 2014.79.10
Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826 – 1900 ), Niagara, 1857, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection (Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund) 2014.79.10

What happens when America’s foremost landscape artist creates landscapes for his personal use? It becomes Olana, the house and property of Frederic Edwin Church. This year, we are celebrating a two-fold achievement. Fifty years ago, the house was saved by a nascent preservation movement and today its views, created by the artist himself, have been recently and carefully restored.

Frederic Church (1826–1900) was an American wunderkind who visually translated the philosophy of Alexander von Humboldt by painting the Divine in nature. At the age of 19, Church was exhibiting landscapes of the Catskills and was quickly recognized as a gifted artist. He traveled all over the Northeast in search of scenery that reflected the hand of the Maker. The coast of Maine, mountains of Vermont, and Niagara Falls were all depicted in a glowing light that conveyed a sense of wonder.  Travel was an inspiration to Church and he went everywhere from South America to paint the Andes to Labrador to study icebergs. Europe, the Middle East, Jamaica, and Mexico were all revealed by his hand. A multitude of sketches and oil studies, coupled with Church’s prodigious memory, resulted in large-scale works that wowed an American public—one on an economic rise but not yet worldly. Church not only showed his viewers what was around the world, but translated these exotic findings for his personal use.

Thus, East meets West at Olana, which Church painstakingly designed. It is an Orientalist statement in an archetypal American landscape: the Hudson River Valley.

The Hudson River Valley has become America’s first school of painting, thanks mostly to Thomas Cole (1801–1848). He was the sole teacher of Frederic Church and the keystone to a trend of landscape painting that portrayed America as being the ideal of Eden. Although Cole lived in Hudson, New York, and Church would follow him there, other members of the Hudson River School did not. What united them were their convictions that mankind could experience God in Nature. Albert Bierstadt, Martin Heade, John Kensett, Jasper Cropsey, Worthington Whittredge, Robert Scott Duncanson, and Thomas Moran were just some of the men that brought an artistic European sensibility to the newly formed country of America. 

Influenced by Claude Lorrain, John Ruskin, and J.M.W.Turner—shored up by Emerson and Thoreau-—these painters took to the woods, the seas, and the mountains to depict the Almighty. Some were Luminists, giving translucent light to panoramic views of the Sublime. These paintings were made to show the great power of the natural world and to instill awe and humility in the viewer.  In America, this became a manifest destiny to go West.

In 1966, when the State of New York designated the house and 250 surrounding acres of Olana as an historic site, the movement for preservation was just taking root. The destruction of the Pennsylvania train station in 1963 shocked small groups of like-minded people into saving what they could. David Huntington, in the midst of his thesis on Church, opened the door to Olana’s salvation. New York stalwarts like the Aldriches and Rockefellers came to the rescue. Thankfully, most of the house at Olana had been left as the Churches had left it. Their daughter-in-law, Sally, strictly guarded the contents—to such an extent that Church’s brushes were as he left them.

Today, upon entering the house, one is stepping back into the Churchs’ lives. Either Frederic or his beloved wife Isabel could be just around the corner. We are put into another century and into their intimate setting. Using Church’s sketches as a guide, paths have been cleared and plantings reinstated to mimic these views.

Interior, dining room windows - Photo by Andy Wainwright CMYKIf the house is the heart of the property, then the contrived roadways are its arteries. We can walk the paths that he did, and approach the house as he did. Church’s later inability to paint large canvases due to arthritis did not stop his creative output; he took to the outdoors and created a 350-degree view from his house. These restored views would be appreciated by Church, as he too was a preservationist. In 1878, he and Frederick Law Olmsted helped to save Niagara Falls from commercial interests. Today, coincidently, Olana and Niagara Falls are both flagship parks under the aegis of the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation. 

At Olana, we have an opportunity to transcend time and witness the life of an artist. Perhaps Monet’s Giverny is comparable, but the experience of being in the mindset of an American virtuoso is unique to us. From Frederic Church, we inherited the Romantic big picture of how our country looked in the 19th century as well as the personal domicile of a visionary. The 50 years of saving and preserving Olana, inside and out, have given us the means to see what Church saw and what a lovely vision it is.