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Thursday, February 9, 2012

Church's Olana

You can tell a lot about an artist by peering into his studio. It's kind of a physical representation of the order of his or her mind. My studio is small, but orderly, bookish, and not always too clean--which unfortunately proves my point. If that is true of an artist's studio, it might equally be true of his or her home, especially if, like ours, it was designed and built (not literally in my case) by the artist. It's an architectural picture of who I am (tempered by who my wife would like me to be). Artists have dabbled in architecture for centuries. Peter Paul Rubens' Antwerp house is an excellent example, though the home was remodeled and expanded by the artist, rather than built from scratch. 

Clouds over Olana, 1872, Frederick Edwin Church
In this country, in the state of New York, on a high promontory, overlooking a sweeping view of the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains, one of the most famous and wealthy artists of the 19th century set about creating an architectural representation of himself. He planned and planted every tree, dug his own lake, and in general, created a real landscape as certainly as if he were painting one. Then, in 1867, he set off with his wife on a twenty-month grand tour of Europe and the Middle East. When he came back, trunks filled with hundreds of drawings, his head filled with thousands of ideas, he set about creating the crown jewel of that landscape. He called it Olana. His name was Frederick Edwin Church.

Olana, 1872, Frederick Edwin Church
It's a brave (or foolish) man who tries to label Olana architecturally. The safe word would be "eclectic," but that's about as meaningless as describing a painting as "interesting." Built of native, polychromatic stone, it is somewhat block-like but with mansard roofs, a soaring tower, pointed windows, geometric masonry designs, and strips of blue tile making it reminiscent of Persian architecture. It's kind of a Gothic Revival-Italian Villa-French Mansard-Ruskinian Venetian style castle with shades of Arab and Moorish influences. If it's a representation of Church's mind, then the term "muddled" seems appropriate. Inside, Church agonized over the placement of every urn, mirror, hall tree, mosaic adornment, Persian rug, and Medieval suit of armor. Think Victorian clutter and blend in a generous helping of Middle Eastern souvenir shop chic, and you get some idea where the man was coming from. Nothing was left to accident. Church consulted architects, but in the end did all the design work himself--"Made it out of my head," as he put it. He wrote of working all day supervising construction; then staying up all night creating necessary drawings for the builders.

Olana, court hall
By the time the house was finished around 1872 (a wing was added in 1891 featuring indoor plumbing), Church's paintings had become decidedly out of style. Probably the first American painter ever to become a millionaire, rather than attempt a comeback, Church withdrew from the art world into the fantasy world of his Olana. With money apparently no problem despite the enormous cost of building the house, he poured still more into furnishing it with rugs from Beirut, tiles from Teheran, and furniture from India. And when he still painted, he painted the world as seen from Olana. He died in 1900. The house and grounds remained in the family for another 64 years. By that time, the art and architecture world had gradually come around to acknowledging that Church's paintings, his drawings, and even his peculiar tastes in architecture had some merit after all. His "Victorian monstrosity" was saved from the wrecking ball to become a New York State historic site in 1967, and today, we can traverse through it, revisiting the mind of one of the most unique artists America will ever know.
The exterior stone and tile work were designed by Church to take
into account the effects of lighting at different times of the day.

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