Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900) was a mid-nineteenth century celebrity. As a landscape painter and member of what would eventually be called the Hudson River School, Church is best known for his picturesque views of the North and South American wilderness. The images were often dramatic – perhaps a reflection of the drama surrounding the tumultuous years through which Church achieved the height of his fame. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and Civil War (1861-1865) had each caused fundamental shifts in the new nation's direction and identity. The publication of Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos at the turn of the 19th century, which in turn inspired the work of even more ground-breaking work by Wallace and Darwin, had increased interest in science and natural history. Church's paintings both reflect and embody these cultural shifts, through their desire to share with the viewer new and exciting views of far-off locales laden with meticulously rendered botanicals in often heavily manipulated compositions. He became internationally famous with paintings such as Niagara (1857, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), Heart of the Andes (1859, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Twilight in the Wilderness (1860, Cleveland Museum of Art) and The Icebergs (1861, Dallas Museum of Art).
Church showed artistic talent even in his early childhood in Hartford, Connecticut. His father Joseph, a successful businessman, supported his son's efforts, and by 1844 had arranged through a friend to have Daniel Wadsworth, prominent Hartford community member and patron of Cole's work, write to landscape artist Thomas Cole on his son's behalf. Cole was already well recognized for his talent, and would later become known as the founder of the Hudson River School.
Cole agreed to take on then eighteen-year-old Frederic Church as his student, and Church joined him on sketching tours of the Catskill Mountains and surrounding area. Church learned to sketch the landscape, and then bring elements of his sketches together in the studio to create his paintings, manipulating the view to create better compositions. At age nineteen, Church showed his first work at New York's National Academy. He was elected to the Academy's membership by age twenty-three.
After two years studying with Cole, Church returned to Hartford, and the following year opened a studio in New York's Art-Union Building, where he would remain until an 1858 move to the 10th Street Studio Building. He would maintain his studio there until 1889.
During the 1859 exhibition of Heart of the Andes, Church met Isabel Carnes. Within a year, the couple planned to marry, and Church traveled back up the Hudson to choose a property on which they would build their first home. Before the wedding, he purchased a 126-acre working farm directly across the Hudson River from Catskill, where he'd studied with Cole. Cole had died in 1848 at the age of 47, just two years after Church's time in Catskill, but Church continued to maintain a relationship with the Cole family for many years.
Church hired Richard Morris Hunt as architect for a new house, Cosy Cottage, and the couple boarded with the Cole family during its construction. The couple would spend their first years in the new house surrounded by the news of the Civil War, which impacted Church both personally and artistically. His paintings The Icebergs, Our Banner in the Sky and Cotopaxi, among others, have been associated with his reactions to the events of the Civil War.
Church also began to manipulate the outdoor spaces of his property, adjusting elements of the landscape in much the same way he might manipulate a landscape on one of his canvasses. Church had trees planted and swampland dug into a lake, laid out roads and made decisions about land use as he created his picturesque landscape in three dimensions.
The Churches welcomed their first child, Herbert, and their second, Emma, in 1862 and 1864, but both died in a diphtheria epidemic in New York City in 1865. The Churches spent the early months of their grief in Jamaica, and after returning, welcomed son Frederic Joseph to renew their family. By 1867, Church finally had the opportunity to purchase a plot of land adjacent to his farm that included the hilltop where he would build his final home. He returned to Richard Morris Hunt to discuss plans for a larger house, and Hunt responded with an idea for a French manor house, but Church left on an 18 month trip to Europe and the Near East with his family before agreeing to a design.
The Churches spent time in the areas that are now Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and later Germany, Italy and Greece. It is their time in the East that ultimately drove Church's ideas about building a home.
Upon his return, Church secured the services of a new architect, Calvert Vaux, and began designing the new house in earnest. Olana's collection includes architectural sketches by both Vaux and Church that illustrate the collaborative relationship the two had during the home's design. Construction began in 1870, and Frederic, Isabel, Frederic Joseph, Theodore, Louis and Downie moved into the second floor of the unfinished house in 1872. Church continued his development of the landscape as well, taking advantage of the new views afforded by the higher elevation property. Church would continue to make changes and improvements to both the home and landscape throughout most of his life.
By the 1880s, Church was painting less frequently and the tightly brushed and highly detailed pictures of the Hudson River School had fallen out of fashion, replaced by the looser, obvious brushstrokes of the Impressionists. He spent his winters in the warmer, more arid climates of Mexico that alleviated the worsening symptoms of his arthritis, returning to Olana each year as the weather warmed. He died in 1900, during one of his return trips to Olana while visiting the home of a friend in New York City.
Church left Olana to his youngest son Louis, who had returned to manage the property in his parents' old age. Louis soon married Sarah (Sally) Good, who came to live with Louis at Olana. Louis died in 1943, and Sally in 1964. They'd had no children of their own, and Sally left Olana to her nephew in New Jersey. In the mid-1960s, the Hudson River School had not yet seen the revival of its popularity, and Olana and the contents of the house were almost auctioned! Art historian David Huntington learned of Sally's death, and after ensuring Sally's nephew would give him a little time, began to contact individuals who might be able to assist. Olana Preservation, Inc. was formed and began the two-year task of raising funds with which to purchase the property and contents of the house.
At the end of the two-year period, Olana Preservation, Inc. had raised over half the funds necessary to purchase the property, but was unable to raise the full amount. By June, 1966 the State Legislature under Governor Nelson Rockefeller had passed a bill authorizing the State of New York to purchase Olana. Olana Preservation, Inc. purchased Olana in July and conveyed the title to New York State in December. Olana opened as a New York State Historic Site in June, 1967.
Olana Preservation, Inc. disbanded, but several of its key members rejoined to start the non-profit Friends of Olana in 1971, which changed its name to The Olana Partnership in 2000. The Olana Partnership continues to play an integral part in supporting New York State Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation's efforts at Olana.