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It’s a question old as New York City itself: Where can we escape the summer heat of our beloved concrete oven, seasonally filled with roasting tourists and sizzling garbage?
This year, one answer has been hiding out in the vast, beautiful world of Hudson River School painter Frederic Edwin Church. The nineteenth-century artist was an intoxicating mix of grand ambition and devout belief — a combo so unfashionable today, and so far removed from the contemporary art world, as to become paradoxically relevant, in the way a doughnut is defined by its hole. His cosmic landscapes have recently become the topic of conversation in certain circles of younger painters — New York painter Gaby Collins-Fernandez, for instance, recently wrote about Church’s Our Banner in the Sky (1861) for the popular website Painters on Paintings. All this is to say that it wasn’t totally surprising when an abstract painter we met upstate at a Fourth of July cookout suggested that on our drive back to the city we stop at Olana, Church’s estate outside Hudson.
You approach the house from the back, obscured by a screen of trees Church himself planted by the thousands, carefully constructing every view. Following a carriage path counterclockwise around the hill, the trees begin to part, affording increasingly long glimpses of the house itself — which Church called his “Persian dream palace.” The foliage finally drops away when you’re directly in front of the façade, a pan–Middle Eastern fantasia overlooking the Hudson Valley. It’s a Victorian precursor to Julian Schnabel’s fuchsia Palazzo Chupi, and, like with Schnabel, the paintings make the most sense when seen as an extension of mise en scène. Famously, Church set up theatrical drapery and exotic plants around his epic Heart of the Andes (1859) (on view at the Metropolitan Museum), encouraging paying customers to survey it through opera glasses; had he been born a century later, we’d probably remember him more kindly as one of our greatest American filmmakers.
Church maniacally designed Olana’s interiors, down to the elaborate stenciling that snakes around every space. Taken as a whole, it’s overwhelming what a terrific and original colorist he was. Each room weaves in accents of every other, giving an almost theatrical delight to new appearances by his deep roses, burnished plums, tawny pumpkins, and glassy celadons as you move around the house. The totalizing effect is illustrated by one sitting room designed around his El Khasné, Petra (1874) — a luminous gash of golden-salmon shines through the dark rock faces obscuring the entrance to the ancient city Petra. The painting is placed on a light shale-colored wall above a correspondingly rosy stone fireplace, so that every other color and surface in the small space complements and extends the effect of the painting (we have to imagine the fire burning below it, mirroring the painting’s bright aperture). For all its lusciousness, as an embodiment of Church’s dreams and desires there is also real melancholy — a feeling on an opposite scale but somehow related to the wonder and sadness of Joseph Cornell’s jewel boxes.
In all his paintings, every pale thing blushes: Cream clouds and milky marbles are pushed toward pink — a palette reddening almost imperceptibly, like a very fresh sunburn. Often Church gives this warmth a sharper bite by laying it alongside an iced blue or chilled gray. Most great painters of light necessarily have a complex understanding of colors (“colors are the children of light,” as Johannes Itten once said), and Church revels in optical jokes and bravura flourishes of atmospheric effects (see the astonishing double rainbows, fresh as from a prism, in his campy The Aegean Sea (1877), also at the Met, which sit right on the surface like a reflexive joke about color, light, and painting itself). He plausibly represents optical atmospheric incidents as a way of making them function more firmly as signs, the heaviest-handed instance to contemporary eyes being the much-reproduced Our Banner in the Sky, where streaking clouds in a blood-red sunset break to reveal a patch of starry blue, all adding up to an American flag waving out over the land. This goofy painting looks so good now — it’s amazing to think you could or can get away with it.
Church’s subtle, wacky semiotic play in the service of outrageous belief and emotional appeal is what’s been drawing my friends to look at him a little more carefully, even if it is to misread him for our own purposes. Currently at Olana there is a part of the exhibition “River Crossings” (through November 2) that inserts contemporary artists into the homes of Church and, across the river, Thomas Cole. With the best intentions, exhibitions like this take the obvious aspects of Church — his themes and concerns: conservation, celebrity, etc. — too literally. As with almost everything that existed before, the only way to engage art history is perversely — against itself — and that is how it becomes something else: yours. This is exactly what Church did, too — how else do you explain inserting a mythical palace into the American paradise of the Hudson Valley? There are much stranger things going on in his world than just Manifest Destiny, if you get close enough to look. And summer day-trips up to Olana and to the Met are a great way to start.
Frederic Edwin Church
Olana State Historic Site
5720 Route 9G
Hudson, New York, 12534