I had the good fortune this weekend to visit the Olana State Historic Site in the Hudson Valley, and so I now know an inordinate amount about Frederick Edwin Church, the 19th century landscape painter who founded the site. It was a great visit, and informative (they train their tour guides well) but it raised some uncomfortable questions, too – about art, and nature, and what canvases it’s acceptable to paint on.
Church was a member of the Hudson Valley School of landscape painting – a later practitioner, and possibly the most famous of the Luminists. He was born wealthy and made more through his paintings, some of which – like The Heart of the Andes – were tremendously popular and sold for then-unheard of amounts. He was, for his time, impressively well-traveled; he visited (and painted) Europe, the Middle East, and South America. In 1860 he bought a plot of land on the Hudson River, and – though he had never been to Persia – designed a Persian-style castle to serve as his personal residence.
Church was a man cheerfully unconcerned with the original state of things. His house was an unlikely mixture of Persian and Victorian styles. He filled it both with genuine antiques and with baubles and trinkets brought back from his travels. He bought hundreds of paintings at auction, some of which he almost certainly knew were fakes, but it was his feeling that if a fake was indistinguishable from the master, it was an equal work of art. And to fake and master alike Church was known to take his own brush, to correct perceived imperfections (including a Raphael now believed to be an original).
This preference for beauty over authenticity – Church was, above all else, an æsthete – was what allowed him to create his greatest works. The vast majority of Church’s works, with very few exceptions, were composites, blending elements from different areas with flights of Church’s own imagination. (A notable exception is his painting of the lost city of Petra, in Iran). But this impulse is also what leads to his most troubling legacy, and that is Olana itself.
When Church’s arthritis had progressed to the point where he could no longer paint, he turned his attention instead to molding the estate of Olana to be as beautiful as it could be. To that end, he clear-cut trees down from where they blocked his view, and replaced them with those whose leaves were more pleasing colors. He dammed a creek and turned it into a lake, the better to create a foreground for his natural landscape. He built up and dug out roads so that a traveler, walking along them, would come upon the spectacular views around a bend instead of approaching them from the distance. In short, he made his property into a composite.
Today, visiting Olana is an almost absurdly pleasant experience. The house, high on the hilltop, is visible from miles away across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. The driveway to it dips and circles, so you can just glimpse it through the trees but the entirety of the house is hidden until the top of the drive. The grounds are encircled by gravel walking trails through (at this time of year) vibrant autumnal splendor – leaves crunching underfoot, a brisk wind kicking through your hair. And of course, at intervals throughout your stroll you happen upon views of the greatest majesty, the sorts of vistas that would compel a poet’s hand to his quill, or an artist’s to his brush.
But – and here’s the nub of the issue – those vistas are fake. In the thickly-wooded Catskills views like this were rare, and they certainly didn’t exist in Olana before Church arrived. This is an uncomfortable thought. When we look at Church’s paintings, we assume that inherent in the appreciation of the paintings is an appreciation for nature – that what was impressive about Church was not his imagination but his unique ability to record, in vivid detail, the beauty already present in the places he visited. But Church never found a landscape that he considered beautiful enough, and his paintings, far from being an accurate recreations, are in reality no more than pleasing fictions. Church painted places that didn’t exist – and with Olana, he made a place that shouldn’t exist.
Am I suggesting that all landscaping is devoid of art, or that what Church did was ethically wrong in some way? No. There were a thousand ugly things that Church could have done with his property and he chose instead to make it a place of surpassing beauty, and I certainly don’t begrudge him that. But I am suggesting that Church’s works are indicative of a relationship with nature that has fallen very much out of vogue. The 19th-century man viewed the natural world as a gift to man from God, to do with as he saw fit, and though Church was admirably progressive for his time – he probably considered himself a naturalist – even he couldn’t resist tinkering a bit. I loved visiting Olana, but if an artist today bought two hundred acres of virgin old-growth forest and then clear-cut huge swaths of it in the name of art, we would think that was strange – wrong, even. And I think that’s progress.