The Olana Partnership/Cornell University Press, 71 pp., $24.95
Eighteen oil paintings displayed in two wood-paneled and parquet-floored rooms on the second floor of the National Academy Museum on Fifth Avenue show Frederic Edwin Church, the most successful and ostentatiously skillful of mid-nineteenth-century American landscapists, to have been, when he let himself go in his quick on-site oil sketches, a dashing wielder of the brush. Speed of execution let air into his art. A large showpiece like The Heart of the Andes (1859), which thousands in New York and London paid admission money to see, has come to have the creepy feel of a huge piece of nature immobilized under glass. Church himself must have felt the superior liveliness of his preliminary oil studies, for he framed them and kept them in Olana, the Arabian Nights dream-home he built for himself and his family in the early 1870s, on a hilltop in view of the Hudson, on 250 acres he had begun to buy before the Civil War.
He boasted, “Almost an hour south of Albany is the Center of the World—I own it.” The word “Olana” is one that Mr. and Mrs. Church found applied to a “‘fortress’ or ‘treasury-storehouse’ in ancient Persia.” According to Kevin J. Avery’s description in his excellent and entertaining catalog text, it feels like a fortress from outside and is a musty treasury within, evoking “nothing so much as a silent film set, minus a turbaned Douglas Fairbanks Sr. bounding down the stairs.” Avery can scarcely suppress the horror roused in him by the Churches’ horror vacui:
Everywhere—the glinting and glossy bric-a-brac: bronze, brass, iron or steel birds, a Buddha, candelabra, curtain rods, platters, planters, trays, urns, censers, shields, swords, and lances; ceramic vases, pitchers, jars, dishes, cups, and saucers. No horizontal surface in the house is clear of these tchotchkes, including the floor: it is the vacant chairs in each room that assure one that people lived here, though the furniture’s own busy surface decoration challenges even that assumption. From the first Church must have intended that the house would be the repository and museum of his worldly experience and taste.
Church, before his death in 1900, made sure, by appointing his son Louis as professional caretaker of his property, that his collected “plethora of the exotic” would remain intact; after Louis’s death in 1943 his widow, Sally Good Church, became the devoted caretaker of the fabulous hoard, and two years after her death in 1964 the state of New York, led by art-minded Governor Nelson Rockefeller, assumed the duties of preservation, making the house with its contents and grounds a historic site and public park. Thus Church, for decades relegated to the rolls of the half-forgotten, succeeded in imposing not only his house on a hilltop but his furniture and travel souvenirs on generations of tourists. Paradoxically, in assembling this domestic monument to his own high-Victorian taste, Church included samples of his work at its most free-spirited and modern.
The show is divided, unchronologically, between paintings …