HUDSON, N.Y. - Artist Frederic Edwin Church built Olana, his grandiose, Persian-inspired villa, atop a hill on 250 acres in the Hudson Valley so he could be close to the natural beauty that inspired him. When not traveling the world, he could look out the windows to see the lush landscapes of the Hudson River, the Catskill Mountains, and trees stretching for miles - and paint them just as he saw them.
Now, more than a century later, a new gallery at the Olana State Historic Site enables visitors to see those same vistas and many of the works of art created from them.
The Evelyn and Maurice Sharp Gallery, on the second floor of the main house, was unveiled in May in conjunction with the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's voyage up the river that carries his name. The gallery's first exhibit, "Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Edwin Church's Views From Olana," opened late last month and continues through October. Taken mainly from Olana's own collection, it highlights Church's sketches of the river from his property and includes works never seen by the public.
Church is often considered one of America's most important artists and a key figure in the influential Hudson River School, a loose association of painters who worked in a similar style, focusing on landscapes of the Hudson Valley, the Catskill Mountains, the Adirondack Mountains, and New Hampshire's White Mountains between the 1830s and the 1870s. The artists were colleagues, friends, and supporters who studied together and traveled throughout New York and New England, and occasionally Europe and the Middle East.
Most of the sketches are done in oil on paper and reflect what cocurators Valerie Balint and Evelyn Trebilcock call his "quintessential views" of the river, many of which look south. From the window, those views contained within the sketches and paintings allow the exhibition to take on something of a multidimensional quality.
Lilacs abound, and leafy trees dot the landscape - mainly birch, oak, ash, and black cherry. The Catskills loom in the distance, past rolling green hills and more trees. Church's efforts to design perfect views remain - miles of planned roads around the property were carefully laid out so vistas would open up as the roads rose, fell, and turned. The property's outbuildings were designed to be screened from sight, leaving little to mar the scenes Church worshipped.
Many of the paintings in this exhibition focus on sunsets, including Summer Sunset From Olana, an oil on board that shows the aftermath of a late-day thunderstorm, haziness contrasted by the brilliance of the reds, oranges, and yellows of the setting summer sun. A photograph taken in 1898 by Church's son Louis also shows a sunset view, with the sun breaking through the clouds over the mountains.
Maintaining the site's original, unaltered beauty has been the result of years of work by the Olana Partnership, the nonprofit arm of the property. This has included vehement opposition to local development, including a proposed cement plant that would have included a 400-foot smokestack, skyscraper-sized buildings, and round-the-clock mining and blasting.
The partnership spent 18 years working to get the overhead electrical wires running throughout Olana put underground. Last year, the last utility pole was removed from the property, making the views seen today at Olana even closer to what Church saw.
Church would not have seen the Rip Van Winkle Bridge - a suspended-deck truss bridge built in 1935 to connect Greene and Columbia Counties. A few factories can be seen far off in the distance, with a scattering of houses mixed in. New trees have been planted deliberately to hide as much industrial development as possible, and a full horticultural restoration is in the works.
Despite the small changes, the views remain astoundingly close to the originals. Seasons and shifts in daylight still provide the natural variables that so influenced Church's work. The artist once wrote, "I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio."
To fully capture the natural landscapes, Church designed the windows of his home to frame the views outside, even going so far as to enhance many of them with elaborate, decorative borders, mimicking the frame around a painting. The display is also unique in the way the art is incorporated into the home. There are no stark white walls with paintings hung solemnly in the center. Rather, the house has been maintained and restored to reflect what it would have looked like when Church and his family lived there, and the intricate borders on each wall have been repainted using the same stencils Church himself designed.
Church began building his Columbia County estate in 1860, near where he had painted and studied with mentor Thomas Cole. The house was built to reflect the Moorish architecture that Church had seen in such Middle Eastern cities as Beirut, Jerusalem, and Damascus with help from architect Calvert Vaux, best-known for codesigning New York's Central Park.
Though Church's name is not always familiar today, in his time he was considered a master and commanded huge crowds at his showings. People would line up to pay 25 cents to see just one of his paintings. His 1859 work The Heart of the Andes sold that year for $10,000, which at the time was the highest price ever paid for an American painting. That painting is now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His Twilight in the Tropics sold late last month for more than $1.2 million at a New York fine-art auction.
Most of his works were sold during his lifetime, and in later years he had to purchase some of them back for display at Olana - his gem, his own little "center of the world," as he described it.
"Glories of the Hudson: Frederic Edwin Church's Views From Olana" continues through Oct. 12 at the Evelyn and Maurice Sharp Gallery at Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, N.Y.
Getting there: Take the New York State Thruway (Interstate 87) to Exit 21/Catskill. Follow signs for Route 23 East and Hudson. Cross Rip Van Winkle Bridge and bear right onto Route 9G South. Olana is on the left one mile south of Rip Van Winkle Bridge.
Gallery hours: Thursdays through Sundays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (Grounds are open year-round.)
Gallery tickets: $6 for adults, $5 for seniors and students, free for children 12 and under. (Additional fees apply for house tours and entrance to the grounds.)
Information: 518-828-0135 or www.olana.org.