A couple hours up the Hudson River from New York City is Olana (image 1), the country mansion of the 19th-century painter Frederic Edwin Church. Church (1826-1900) was one of the Hudson River School painters, specializing in landscape paintings that celebrated Nature's glories (image 2). Olana's setting is the East Coast wilderness that Church was raised in, but the house is hardly the typical Victorian manor house. Let's take a look at the story behind Church's Orientalist fantasy.
Church, scion of a wealthy New England family, was successful as an artist from his late teens. His landscape paintings were beautiful and dramatic, and he was an excellent salesman. After a trip to South America in the 1850s, Church painted an enormous landscape painting of the Andes that broke the record at the time for the most expensive painting sold by a living American artist.
In 1860 he married Isabel, and they settled in Hudson, New York on farmland that would eventually be the site of Olana. They quickly started a family but, tragically, their oldest two children both died of diptheria in 1865. Devastated, the couple didn't want to continue living in a house with so many memories. They bought 18 hilltop acres adjacent to their land, and hired an architect to draw up plans for a French manor-style house. In late 1867, they took their infant son on a 3-month journey through the Middle East, to Alexandria, Beirut, Jerusalem, Damascus and Petra.
When they returned in 1868, the Churches scrapped the plans for their French manor. Instead, collaborating with Calvert Vaux (one of the architects of both Central Park and Prospect Park), Church created plans for a home in the traditional Persian style — built around a central courtyard, and with ogival arches everywhere. Of course, the Churches hadn't technically been to Persia on their travels, but Frederic still had plenty of inspiration from the architecture, textiles and ceramics he had seen in the Levant. He created designs for the stenciled patterns on the interior architecture and the polychrome masonry on the exterior. The colors Church chose in his interiors were inspired by a house he and Isabel saw in Damascus with richly painted walls and ceilings.
The house was partially decorated with 15 crates-full of purchases from the Middle East, including rugs, inlaid tables, and metalwork. For the rest, Church used contemporary Western furniture in Renaissance and Gothic revival styles, and he even designed some furniture for Olana himself.
Despite Olana's singular aesthetic, Church's interest in the art and decoration of the Islamic world was not unique at the time. The Victorians were fascinated with the Middle East, whose foreign culture and ancient traditions were at once exotic and accessible, due to the spread of Western imperialism and an increasing ease of international travel and trade. Arts & Crafts designers like William Morris incorporated Persian rugs and other Middle Eastern patterns and goods into their interiors. In retrospect, Church was at the forefront of the American Aesthetic Movement, a group of artists and designers who valued beauty above all things, and were deeply inspired by the arts of the Islamic world, as well as the Far East (you can read a bit more about the Aesthetic Movement in this piece about peacock feathers). In fact, many patterns and designs Church created for Olana were derived from pattern books by Western artists, part of the Victorian fashion for 'Orientalizing' and historical designs.
But Olana was hardly a run-of-the-mill Victorian home. Church's passion for the art and design he had seen firsthand in the Middle East distinguishes him from his dilettante contemporaries, even while throwing an illuminating light onto this subcategory of Victorian visual culture.
There is so much more to know about Olana, so why don't you go see it for yourself? Olana is just a short drive or train ride away from New York City, and it is open to the public, though reservations are recommended. Here is the official website. For more information on Church, here is a lovely article by William H. Gerdts via Antiques and Fine Art.