Volume 20, Issue 2 | Summer 2021

Outside In: Space, Light, and the Artful Interior at Frederic Church’s Olana

by Julia B. Rosenbaum

Scholarly Essay|Project Narrative

Fig. 1, Sitting room, Olana main house, 2020. 360-degree photograph. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY. Photograph by Krista Caballero. Church’s The After Glow (1867) currently hangs on the east wall of the sitting room, and this 360-degree photograph is used to evoke Grace King’s experience. Given King’s description, either The After Glow, which we know was in the house by 1886, or another Church sunset such as Sunset, Jamaica (1865), would have been on the wall in 1887.


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In June 1887, Louisiana author Grace King visited Frederic Edwin Church and his wife, Isabel, at Olana, the couple’s expansive 250-acre property overlooking the Hudson River and the Catskill, Berkshires, and Taconic mountain ranges in upstate New York. On her first evening in the Churches’ house, she wandered onto a piazza or veranda, drawn by a stunning sunset view. She watched as dusk faded into night, when suddenly an almost identical scene caught the corner of her eye. She turned her head to find another equally dramatic sunset, glowing through a doorway that opened onto the sitting room; this view, however, was painted, a work by Church himself (fig. 1).‍[1] In that brief moment, the boundaries between reality and illusion, between nature and its representation, were suspended. King’s experience of a kind of visual doubling stands out not for its singularity, however, but for its significance: Church used this form of perceptual play consistently throughout the interiors of the Olana main house.

Church added architectural design to his artistic practice in the late 1860s, following his tremendous success as a landscape painter. Two works in particular launched his celebrity status: his painting of Niagara Falls (1857) and his panoramic view of the Ecuadorian Andes (1859). In both, Church famously pushed the boundaries of perception, with critics marveling at his illusionistic feats and the striking optical effects he was able to achieve in paint. With house building, Church moved into an immersive, three-dimensional format, producing some of his most experimental work. The site of Olana is a multimedia installation, integrating landscaping, architecture, and interior design into one synthetic artwork. Church set his house at the heart of the property atop a steep ridge, and his first-floor interior spaces function, I argue, not only as a key component of his overall plan but as a deliberate composition.

Few studies, however, have addressed Church’s interior design efforts. Instead, his blockbuster paintings, prodigious sketching, and extensive landscaping to spotlight viewsheds have commanded, not surprisingly, the most attention and, overall, scholars have treated his two-dimensional oeuvre quite distinctly from his architectural and design work.‍[2] My aim in this essay is to reintegrate the two and to position Church’s interior spatial design as an aesthetic culmination of the artist’s longstanding interest—across media—in issues of perception and proprioception.‍[3] To reframe Church’s work in this way, I focus first on the space-breaking features of his renowned 1857 and 1859 paintings along with his endeavors to capture the effects of light in his sketches and drawings. His forays into the three-dimensional intensified this optical experimentation; relinquishing, for example, paint or graphite as materials, he turned to daylight as a physical medium. Throughout the house at Olana, Church worked to create spectacularly disorienting experiences like the one described by King by making art out of a dynamic encounter with light, space, and movement. Interior design became the means for him to engage on a grand scale with the relationship of body and object, inside and outside, stasis and motion, and the very means and materials of artistic composition.

Plans and Possibilities

In 1871, during the house’s construction, Church himself characterized it as “a curiosity in Architecture.”‍[4] Its idiosyncratic nature also struck public commentators: New York literary figure and historian Martha J. Lamb included Olana in her 1879 publication The Homes of America, which catalogued notable properties from the colonial period to the modern. Of Church’s house, she noted: “The building is certainly very unique, and is wholly an individual structure, departing distinctly from precedents in America.”‍[5] Part of its uniqueness derived from the Near Eastern motifs that Church adapted and heavily incorporated into myriad decorative details—a “Persian” style, as he referred to it.‍[6] But the house is equally distinguished by Church’s focus on light effects and spatial design in his effort to animate the interiors.

Olana first took shape in 1860, when the artist purchased a long, steep slope of 126 acres. In 1867 he acquired its summit, the area he had been eyeing to build a large family house. Initially, the Churches worked with the prominent New York architect Richard Morris Hunt, known for his Tenth Street Studio building (1857), which had become one of New York City’s artist centers; Church, among other major figures of the period, maintained a studio there. When the Churches first moved to the Olana property, Hunt designed their small cottage. For the intended larger residence, he drew up architectural plans around 1867 in the style of French Renaissance chateaux.‍[7] The Churches then left on a two-year sojourn, from 1867 to 1869, through Europe and the Middle East (what was then Ottoman Syria), where, as Church’s letters and Isabel’s diary suggest, they found the domestic architecture in Beirut and Damascus eye catching.

Especially appealing to the Churches were the arrangements of interior spaces of buildings and their luminescent surfaces. Writing to his close friend and fellow artist Erastus Dow Palmer in March 1868, Church singled out the central design feature of Beirut dwellings: “They have a large room called the court in the center often 30 x 50 feet or larger—and perhaps 30 feet high and smaller rooms on each side these rooms are all paved with marble in patterns.” He excitedly added: “I have got new and excellent ideas about building since I came abroad.”‍[8] In Damascus, the materials and the reflective qualities of the city’s domestic architecture stood out especially to Isabel, who wrote in her diary, “walls & ceiling, highly and gorgeously decorated, and mirrors everywhere, amid the decorations, little bits of mirrors—doors & all wood work—inlaid with ivory & mother of pearl. At night by candle light, the effect must be quite splendid.”‍[9] These examples clearly resonated with Church. Upon the couple’s return to New York, he changed architects, turning to Central Park’s codesigner, Calvert Vaux. And he completely revised the house’s layout.

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Fig. 2, Phillip J. Black (draftsperson), First-floor plan, Olana, from Historic American Buildings Survey, 1969. Drawing. Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS NY, 11-HUD, 1-), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington. Image in the public domain; available from: https://www.loc.gov/.
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Fig. 3, Architectural plan, first floor of the main house, Olana (missing sketch, A11), ca. 1870. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, OL.1993.19.30. Photograph by David C. Huntington; courtesy of Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. A note about this photograph: the art historian David C. Huntington, who spearheaded the effort to preserve Olana (1964–66), took the photograph as preliminary documentation of this architectural plan, which subsequently disappeared. It remains the only known extant visual record of this historical document.

A cruciform plan characterized the new design. At the center of the home, Church planned a large, square room known as the Court Hall with a set of rooms around it. The four openings off the Court Hall align closely along north-south and east-west axes (fig. 2). While Vaux had designed a similar house back in 1851–52, as Francis Kowsky has uncovered, such a layout was not typical of his practice.‍[10] Rather, it seems that Church, stimulated by what he had seen in Damascus and Beirut, was working through possibilities to generate as open and symmetrical a form as he could. To that end, he made numerous sketches that, alongside Vaux’s professional architectural drawings, show artist and architect testing out possible configurations. In one iteration, for example, the dining room/gallery appears directly off the Court Hall’s north side with the main staircase pushed to the northeast corner (fig. 3).[11] By May 28, 1870, the date of a stamped architectural plan from Vaux’s firm, the two rooms had switched places, with the dining room/gallery moved to the northeast corner instead. This alteration brought two major window openings (the one in the Court Hall’s south wall and the north window of the grand staircase) into direct alignment. Such an arrangement created a tighter axial plan based on architectural openings: a northern-southern line of windows and an eastern-western line of doors with those axes crossing in the Court Hall.‍[12] The two rooms off the southern end of the Court Hall—the sitting room and the east parlor—with the porch-like space centered between them, squared out the plan. To stand at the axial crossing of the Court Hall is to look out in almost all directions at the surrounding landscape, a position that yields a visual experience of panoramic openness, of seeing far beyond the confines of the house’s walls (fig. 4).

First-floor Plan, Olana

Note: Mouseover or touch plan to highlight rooms. Click a room to select it (click again to deselect).

Fig. 4, Phillip J. Black (draftsperson), First-floor plan, Olana, from Historic American Buildings Survey, 1969. Drawing. Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS NY, 11-HUD, 1-), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington. Image in the public domain; available from: https://www.loc.gov/. Views of Court Hall, Olana. Clockwise, north-east-south-west: photograph by Carri Manchester, courtesy of The Olana Partnership, ca. 2006; photograph by Krista Caballero, 2020; photograph by Krista Caballero, 2020; photograph by Larry Lederman, courtesy of Larry Lederman, ca. 2017.

Spatial Experimentation in Paint and Frame Design

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Fig. 5, Frederic Edwin Church, Niagara, 1857. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.
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Fig. 6, Frederic Edwin Church, Heart of the Andes, 1859. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Early intimations of the interior design directions Church would take in the house at Olana date back to the late 1850s with Church’s manipulation of space and movement in two of the most renowned paintings of his career: Niagara (1857) and Heart of the Andes (1859). These pieces markedly pushed the limits of two-dimensional art making (figs. 5, 6). In each, Church adjusted size, scale, and perspective to produce a different kind of spectatorial engagement than that of the typical academic canvas of the time. He sought a more immersive experience, akin to two extremely popular visual technologies of the period, the panorama and the stereoscope, both of which utilized optical effects to fool a viewing body into being somewhere else. As much as 3-D movies, IMAX, and virtual reality devices grip twenty-first-century audiences, Church and his fellow spectators in the nineteenth century equally experimented with, and reveled in, novel visual experiences and modes of seeing that spatially and perspectivally reorganized the world.

By the 1840s, panoramas and stereoscopes, along with a whole host of related optical devices, such as dioramas, kaleidoscopes, and magic lanterns, had become mass-media entertainment.‍[13] Church, as a fixture in the New York art world, would certainly have known of the new media that were available. This would include the numerous panoramas that toured through the city over the decades. Interest in these large, horizontally oriented painted scenes spread through Europe and the United States in the nineteenth century. Their form manifested what Stephen Oettermann has called “see-fever,” a desire to see all, to encounter the horizon whether by climbing towers, scaling mountains, or, as had become increasingly popular, by going to panoramas.‍[14] Cityscapes, significant battles, global locales, and impressive natural scenery were common subjects, which viewers could encounter either in fixed or moving formats. The fixed or circular panorama relied on a 360-degree painted expanse hung inside a round exhibition hall or rotunda. Spectators circumambulated along a central viewing platform. In the moving panorama, spectators remained stationary while enormous canvases, continuously connected and secured on rollers at both ends, scrolled before them. In either mode, the drama of the experience resulted from an immediate sensation of “being there” achieved in several ways: the horizon lines in the scenes were positioned at eye level for viewers, the scene painters concentrated on topographical accuracy, and the panoramas were staged in surrounding darkness so as to eliminate all awareness of the artifice.

It’s likely that Church, in fact, had worked on a moving panorama project, composing a number of scenes, sometime early in his career in the 1840s.‍[15] In his letters Church makes little mention of his entertainment activities, but we know that Jervis McEntee, a good friend and a fellow landscape painter, recorded in his diary from the 1880s three different panoramas that he had been to see in New York City.‍[16] Perhaps most significantly, the renowned Prussian natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt, a key inspiration for Church, regarded the panorama as an ideal medium for stimulating a true appreciation of nature. The ability of the panorama to gather multitudinous visual information in one place, giving the spectator a sense of mastery and order, was one of the reasons that Humboldt championed the art form and encouraged the making of more nature-themed works.‍[17] In both Niagara and Heart of the Andes, Church, attuned to issues of visuality, pursued innovative compositions to seamlessly blend “fine art” genres and popular art theatricality.

The rave critical response to these two paintings from the 1850s suggests how cannily Church was able to incorporate the immersive and illusionistic qualities particular to such devices as panoramas. Hailed almost immediately as a great artwork, Niagara upended the standard Euro-American landscape paradigm—rectangular or vertical format with land in the foreground, water in the middle ground, and land and sky in the background.‍[18] Instead, Church effected a radical composition. He removed any stabilizing foreground land, suspending the viewer entirely over water. The painting is also stunningly horizontal: while substantial in height at three-and-a-half-feet tall, the work stretches seven and a half feet in length. Its proportions echo, though on a much smaller scale, the panorama form with its large, long sections of canvas. During the mid-nineteenth century, Niagara Falls indeed proved a popular panorama subject. Godfrey Frankenstein’s large painted panel scenes of the falls in all seasons and climatic conditions, for instance, premiered in New York City in the summer of 1853 and toured the country for the next several years to great fanfare.‍[19]

Niagara’s horizontality is not only extreme, but it also produces the perceptual exhilaration of dangling mid-air. This allowed Church to explore an artistic tension inherent in both the work’s subject matter, water, and its medium, oil on canvas: in other words, how he would depict fluidity and how he would depict time and motion on a static surface. Church confronted a similar tension when animating the interior spaces of his house, but there he was able to harness the shifting of actual daylight in real time. In Niagara, he approached a solution through staging what appears as an active water sequence that unfolds along the length of the canvas and the depicted curve of the falls. It begins in the immediate foreground with the steady flow of water, much like a babbling brook. Then, in the emerald roll of the middle ground to the right, he showcases the bend of water as it starts to descend in a torrent. Finally, we witness the power and force of the cataract, head on, water crashing down, turning into white, billowing spray. This multiangle approach not only captures the elusive color properties of a substance as mutable as water but it also serves as a pre-cinematic ploy to seemingly apprehend movement itself.

Church tackled strategies of dynamic immersion again two years later in his Heart of the Andes (1859), a composite vista of the Andean cordilleras. His efforts in this work initiated a more concerted move from painting to installation, from two-dimensional representation to three-dimensional simulation. Critics focused on two striking features in this regard: the degree of illusionism Church mastered in the painting and his unusual choice for its display. Over and over again, reviewers from Boston to Cincinnati marveled at how real the image seemed, as though they themselves had somehow entered the scene. A Boston writer typified the response: “It was no painter’s trick before us, but nature herself palpitating there in all the warmth and glory of her sunny and redundant life and beauty. We seemed to breathe the very atmosphere in which the picture swims and to scent the odors of the strange and startling flowers which flash their colors in the foreground.”‍[20] The writer went on to “hear” the mountain stream and “feel” the chill of the mountain air. Another reviewer enthused: “You gaze over a landscape on canvas, as if upon nature itself.”‍[21]

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Fig. 7, New York Sanitary Fair display of Frederic Edwin Church, Heart of the Andes, 1864. Stereograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington. Image in the public domain; available from: https://www.loc.gov/.

At five and a half feet by almost ten feet, the large size of the canvas helped ensure this sensory transport. Church also circulated the work in the “great picture” tradition, that is, exhibited on its own in a special setting as an entertainment destination. In this case, the setting also seems to have included vegetation. Most significantly, the canvas did not hang on the wall. Instead, it was inserted into an elaborately carved, dark-wood structure that stood on the floor (fig. 7). The oversized deep frame, along with the picture, functioned architecturally; it approximated a scene out of a very large window, made even more dramatic through the use of controlled lighting and fabric swags, paralleling curtains. The New York Times commented that the “effect of this frame is simply magical. It is a new sensation in art, giving a reality of atmospheric space to the picture.”‍[22] While the ensemble was scaled beyond an average human body, viewers, as art historian Kevin Avery has noted, would come across the horizon line of the painting, mostly at eye level, reinforcing the sense of an authentic encounter.‍[23] The use of opera glasses and rolled tubes of paper, as reported by many newspapers, provided a more telescopic view and helped to pull viewers into the landscape and intimately connect them with the profuse details of the depicted environment.

Alongside the painting’s panorama aesthetics, this close-up viewing mode and Church’s painstaking realism suggest another optical device of interest to him: the stereoscope.‍[24] Like panoramas, stereoscopes also brought elements of the world to viewers and playfully challenged perceptual experience, but inversely. Rather than a super-size canvas, it relied on a small rectangular card with two almost identical photographs placed next to each other. A viewer inserted the card, known as a stereograph, into a goggle-like gadget called a stereoscope, which was then held up to the eyes. The lens in the stereoscope turned the two separate photographs into a single three-dimensional scene spread out before the viewer. Because of the photographic process, the stereograph made extraordinary detail visible. While there is no record of Church using a camera to make art, he avidly collected photographs, including roughly five hundred stereograph cards of landscapes and cityscapes from all over the world. Like stereoscopes and panoramas—and the interior design strategies Church would later employ on a dramatically greater scale in his house—the Heart of the Andes painting and its installation unsettled the bodily experience of viewing, obscuring the line between illusion and reality.

Several years later, in 1867, Church experimented further with mechanisms of display and kinesthetic perception, this time focusing on frame design exclusively. Church had received a large painting commission from Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt. Colt, who had inherited the prominent Colt firearms firm in Hartford, Connecticut, after the death of her husband in 1862, was assembling a major collection of well-known artists for her new home picture gallery and sought out such New York luminaries as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt. She planned to display Church’s commissioned piece in the Hartford house and, during the construction of the gallery space, had in fact obtained Church’s advice on multiple matters of its design.‍[25]

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Fig. 8, Detail of frame, lower right corner of Frederic Edwin Church, Vale of St. Thomas, 1867. Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford. Photograph by author.

For Colt’s painting, Church returned to subject matter he had generated during a trip to Jamaica in 1865 and produced one of his signature vistas of land and sky. The gilded frame he designed for the work, however, was uncommon. Rather than place the roughly twelve-by-seven-foot Vale of St. Thomas in a standard frame with a sloping cove, Church devised a large, deep case (fig. 8). That depth allowed for distinct visual layers—frames within frames—that included a decorated inner liner below a wider outer molding also with carved ornamentation. At the bottom was the canvas, distinctly set back from the edge of the outer molding by almost half a foot. Frame historian Suzanne Smeaton describes its form as having “an unusual profile that employs void space at the center to give the effect of a shadowbox.”‍[26] With its sequence of bright-gold strips and dark spaces, the layers of the frame generate a play of light and shadow, an effect similar to the juxtaposition of light and dark elements in stereoscope and panorama viewing. Visitors to panoramas, for example, are surrounded in darkness to enhance the illuminated scenes that scroll by, while the eyepiece of the stereoscope creates a dark border to draw a viewer into the luminous, 3-D illusion of the photographic image.

Church had used a window casement structure for Heart of the Andes to confuse spatial realities, and his framing device for Vale of St. Thomas similarly disrupts visual familiarity and expectations. Prefiguring what he would later do in his fenestration designs for the house at Olana, the outer molding’s sharp separation from the canvas emphasizes the gap between reality and illusion. The work as a whole wittily registers both its own artifice and the triumph of Church’s mimetic skills; representational painting’s illusion of the third dimension generates a perceptual dilemma wherein we see what we know not to be the case. Church drove the point home through a combination of three elements: the hyperrealism of the painted canvas; the allusion to real space through the box-like structure that suggests a view through a window to the outside; and the box itself, an actual physical form receding in space. With its bulk and depth, Church may also have found his unique frame effective in quite literally setting him apart from the other well-known landscapists in Colt’s distinguished collection. Regardless, the frame for the Vale of St. Thomas, like the one he designed for Heart of the Andes, challenges the distinction between viewer and picture plane.

Sketching Light and Shadow

In Niagara, Heart of the Andes, and Vale of St. Thomas, Church probed the nature of perception and the artifice of two-dimensional illusion. His drawings, however, provided a medium to grapple especially with the phenomenon of light, a fundamental component of vision. As anthropologist Tim Ingold has succinctly remarked: “Seeing is the experience of light.” Even more than that, and particularly relevant to Church’s pursuits, he notes: “For sighted persons, light is the experience of inhabiting the world of the visible, and its qualities—of brilliance and shade, tint and colour, and saturation—are variations on this experience.”‍[27] Church’s prolific drawing and sketching throughout his life documents just how much he attended to color and light effects in his own viewing habits.

Like many of his fellow landscapists, Church used drawing and outdoor oil sketching to detail his observations, and what repeatedly captured his attention was light and shadow. Critics and theorists of the period, among them John Ruskin and writers in the mid-1850s art journal The Crayon, emphasized the importance for landscape painters to be outdoors in order to make “truthful” representations. These, as Eleanor Harvey has noted, were “predicated on direct observation and recording of specific aspects of nature.”‍[28] Church’s pursuit of the natural world throughout his life resulted in thousands of sketches—even an excess, according to Church himself. He simultaneously boasted about, and lamented, his sketching compulsion in an 1871 letter to fellow painter Martin Johnson Heade, writing that he was “appalled at the vast accumulation of sketches” and that having so many he never got to see them. His advice to young artists: “Don’t make sketches.”‍[29]

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Fig. 9, Frederic Edwin Church, Sky over ridge, June 1867. Graphite on paper. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, Gift of Louis P. Church, 1917-4-1020. Image in the public domain; available from: http://cprhw.tt/.
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Fig. 10, Frederic Edwin Church, Sunset from Olana, July 1, 1870. Graphite on heavy white wove paper. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, 1917-4-282. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

Church’s working method—and the fact that so many of his sketches have been preserved at Olana State Historic Site and at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum—offers an unusual opportunity to witness his choices, predilections, and artistic directions. Harvey reminds us that the sketch “provides an intimate view into the artist’s creative process.”‍[30] In Church’s case, his work reveals not only meticulous examination but also a fascination with the optics of light and color. In many of his graphite drawings, for example, Church portrayed the physical landscape, but he also concentrated on the phenomenological experience of color, annotating his drawings with compact written descriptions of the color tones he perceived. He employed, as Matthew Hunter has argued, “alphabetico-numerical techniques of sketching.”‍[31] Church most likely learned such a system from the landscapist Thomas Cole, with whom he had studied for two years from 1844 to 1846. In his June 1867 drawing of a ridge, Church, for instance, includes a notation on the top that reads: “Everything green in the foreground a fresh vigorous vivid green” (fig. 9). On a schematic drawing of a sunset from July 1, 1870, Church penciled in under a little crescent moon “delicious milky blue” and further down observed “cool shadow” and “rich purple” (fig. 10).

More elaborately, Church also numbered sections of drawings and in a vacant corner provided a key with the related color sensation. A scene of sugar fields and farm buildings in Cuautla, Mexico, from 1890 has a list at the lower right that reads in part: “2—Exquisite coppery and jewellers [sic] gold tint,” “4—luminous golden green Cane,” “6—soft luminous sky yellower than / and cooler than 2 grading into / faint blue.”‍[32] Such a sketching technique might best be understood, in the words of the conservators who worked on one of Church’s Jamaica paintings, “as a description of color, as well as of the quality of light and reflection.”‍[33] Church was a powerfully effective painter of atmospheric effects and his visual-verbal strategy may have been essential to that success. The writer Theodore Winthrop was sufficiently impressed to make a point of highlighting Church’s multimodal practice in his Life in the Open Air (1863), which chronicles his trip with Church to Maine. Winthrop presents Church’s scribbling as a form of documentation and inspiration, in his words, “an additional method of preservation” that resulted, he quipped, in a “cabalistic cipher, which only [Church] could interpret into beauty.”‍[34]

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Fig. 11, Frederic Edwin Church, Cloud study, March 1871. Brush and oil paint, graphite on paperboard. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, 1917-4-586. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
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Fig. 12, Frederic Edwin Church, Sunset, Jamaica, 1865. Brush and oil paint on paper. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, Gift of Louis P. Church, 1917-4-384-a. Image in the public domain; available from: http://cprhw.tt/o/2Bgxi/.
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Fig. 13, Frederic Edwin Church, Winter landscape with Blue Hill at sunset, Hudson, New York, 1870–75. Brush and oil paint on paperboard. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, 1917-4-45. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
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Fig. 14, Frederic Edwin Church, Alpine study of a sunset, July 1868. Brush and oil on cardboard. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, 1917-4-845. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

In his oil sketches, Church returned over and over again to the subject of light and shadow on forms. Oftentimes, he reduced land to a largely undifferentiated strip at the bottom to concentrate on the interaction of drifting clouds and the luminosity of an invisible or barely visible sun (figs. 11, 12). The transitory moments of sunset when light-dark contrasts appear sharpest in the sky particularly absorbed him. At Olana, Church’s siting of the house atop an escarpment gave him expansive views of atmospheric effects, such as cloud formations and sunlight patterns, and during the years of construction and when he first moved in, he executed numerous sketches of these subjects; Church scholar Gerald Carr counts at least five in the Cooper Hewitt collection from June 1870 alone.‍[35] Sunlight’s terrestrial impact, its effect on the color tones of autumn leaves or the impact of light on earth or water occupied him, too. A winter landscape from 1870–75 (fig. 13), for example, features heavy clouds that both obscure the sky and burst open to illuminate a patch of land. A study from Church’s stay in Germany from July 1868 similarly depicts sunlight suffusing a strip of craggy mountainside (fig. 14).

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Fig. 15, Frederic Edwin Church, Rooftops, Rome, Italy, 1868–69. Brush and oil paint, graphite on cardboard. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, 1917-4-611-a. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.
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Fig. 16, Frederic Edwin Church, Street with houses, Guayaquil, Ecuador, May 1857. Graphite, brush and white gouache on thin gray paper. Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, 1917-4-194. Artwork in the public domain; image courtesy of the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum.

The effect of light on architecture was a common motif in Church’s sketches as well. In these works, he probed the intricacies of sunshine and shade on the surface of buildings, as in an 1868–69 study of rooftops in Rome (fig. 15) in which portions of façades glow, as if lit from within, or recede into darkness. A later oil sketch from around 1884 or 1885 of the Church of San Diego in Cuautla, Mexico, does not merely showcase the structure’s myriad architectural features but also details degrees of luminescence: the kind of light on a flat wall, or on an inverted arch, or diffused in an interior courtyard.‍[36] Even in black and white, Church worked to convey such effects, as suggested by a pencil drawing of houses in Guayaquil, Ecuador, from May 1857 that, with the addition of white gouache, emphasizes the brilliant intensity of sunlight on built surfaces (fig. 16). By 1872 Church’s study of light on paper had taken three-dimensional form in his manipulation of daylight throughout the interior spaces of his house at Olana.

Beyond Two Dimensions

Although Church left little record of his thoughts about art making or his artistic process, the New York–based writer and art critic Henry Tuckerman, in his Book of the Artists: American Artist Life (1867), mentions a revealing comment of Church’s. Tuckerman reports that he had recently received a letter from the artist expressing some frustration: Church unfavorably compared a canvas he was working on in his Olana studio to the “magnificent scenery” around him. “Church,” Tuckerman explains, “is deeply sensible of the inadequacy of art in the presence of nature.”‍[37] In turning to landscaping and house building, an avenue opened for Church to engage directly with space, light, and perceptual experience. His earlier push against two-dimensional constraints—as in Niagara with the exploration of movement and refraction and in Heart of the Andes with immersive viewing—underscores Church’s need for a more capacious medium than paint or pencil.

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Fig. 17, Frederic Joseph Church, Plan of Olana, 1886. Ink and watercolor on paper. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, OL.1984.39. Courtesy of Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
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Fig. 18, Aerial view of Olana looking north, ca. 2017. Photograph. Image ©Steve Cohen, courtesy of The Olana Partnership.

Church found an alternative “canvas” in the site of Olana. Here, landscaping and interior design became his artistic tools. On the property over the decades, he planted thousands of trees, shaped a lake out of a swamp, and designed more than five miles of carriage drives to highlight distinct views and features of the surrounding woods, meadows, river, and mountains (figs. 17, 18). Rather than flatten the natural world on canvas, at Olana Church could arrange it physically; landscaping liberated him from the constraints of scale while maintaining his ability to compose. Albeit physically compromised and painting less, Church stated this explicitly in a letter to his close friend, the sculptor Erastus Dow Palmer, in 1884: “I have made about 1 ¾ miles of road this season, opening entirely new and beautiful views—I can make more and better landscapes in this way than by tampering with canvas and paint in the studio.”‍[38] Inside the house at Olana, Church similarly took up the complexities of sight and the embodied experience of viewing.

During construction in 1871, when Church wrote to William Osborn about his house as a “curiosity in Architecture,” he had been keen to point out the splendid “pictures” obtainable through his windows. Church used fenestration not merely to let light in but also to achieve a coordinated design ambience, one centered on a nearly limitless visual connection to the surrounding landscape. The large, almost floor-to-ceiling windows strategically placed throughout the first floor in, for example, the sitting room, the Court Hall, and later the studio helped to facilitate an open flow between indoors and outdoors. The effect, as a visiting journalist put it in 1884, was “a bright open eyed house, presenting on the landscape sides an almost unbroken expanse of plate-glass windows.”‍[39] While not exactly a twentieth-century glass wall, the windows in the Court Hall and the sitting room make the views resemble enormous framed landscape paintings. Much like his painted vistas, they contain dramatic sight lines of water, mountains, and expanses of sky and tree-covered land unfolding through the distance. Both the Court Hall and the sitting room have outside doors that when opened would have intensified the sense of integration, even dissolution, between interior and exterior.

Window Jamb or Picture Frame?

As distinctive as his fenestration plan and window designs are, Church was not alone in thinking about glass and the physical experience of space. Henry Hudson Holly, a New York–based architect and author, published a volume in 1878 that specifically discusses the aesthetic power of plate glass as a building material. Developed out of a series of articles he had earlier written on household design, Modern Dwellings emphasizes the clarity and desirability of the substance:

Plate-glass in a country-house will add a greater richness than anything else. Its reflection from the exterior is so clear and perfect, that it instantly attracts the attention of the passer-by; and as it is approached, its delineation of the lawn and distant scenery is a picture which none but the Great Architect could paint. From the interior, plate-glass is so absolutely translucent, that no obstruction seems offered to the view; so that, in case of a window glazed with a single light, it is often supposed that the sash must be open, which is the acme of the effect to be produced.‍[40]

For the house at Olana, Church similarly positioned his windows to take full advantage of the material’s translucency, but he also used ornamental elements on the glass itself that more fully exploited its illusory quality beyond what Holly might ever have imagined.

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Fig. 19, Larry Lederman, Sitting room window, southern view, ca. 2017. Photograph. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson. Image ©Larry Lederman.

Trading on the visual tension between representation and immersion, flatness and fullness, Church amplified the effect of picture-like windows through the addition of stenciled amber-tinted glass as decorative borders. They outline the curved arch of the sitting room window, as well as the two transom glass panels of the French doors to the veranda, and they help to connect more seamlessly window and outdoor scene as one aesthetic object (fig. 19). Elsewhere, he created elaborate framing devices around views as though they had become painted canvases. At Olana, a viewer looks out at actual scenery as if it were a painting—the exact inverse of gazing at his Heart of the Andes, in which Church made a painting seem like a view through a window. In both contexts, Church played with the blurring of real and illusory space.

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Fig. 20, Larry Lederman, Churches’ second-floor bedroom window, southern view, ca. 2017. Photograph. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson. Image ©Larry Lederman.
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Fig. 21, View from Ombra, ca. 1986. Photograph. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson. Image courtesy of The Olana Partnership.

Nowhere is this dynamic better illustrated than in the Churches’ second-floor bedroom. Directly across from the bed, Church positioned a south-facing window that offers a view of his created lake to the left and the wide bend of the Hudson River to the right (fig. 20). He then framed it; inside the window trim, he placed an ornamented border of his own design: strips of amber-tinted glass each with a row of painted rosettes. Church also included carved wooden brackets at the inner corners that give the glass the shape of an elongated octagon. While the placement of the window typifies Church’s ability to capture superb views, its elaborate decorative detailing underscores his interest in perceptual punning. A late nineteenth-century writer who visited the house articulated this purposeful doubling effect: “A window of a single pane of plate glass is surrounded by a frame, in such a manner as to give one the impression of gazing at a beautiful picture of river and mountains, instead of looking through a window.”‍[41] Church himself had done an oil sketch of almost the exact same view in 1871.‍[42] On the first floor, utilizing on a similar dynamic but without stenciled borders, Church positioned the recessed open-air room known as the Ombra off the Court Hall to create more of a shadowbox. While the walls of the Ombra indeed offer a protected outdoor space, they also effectively frame a scene, in this case the majestic view of the Hudson River, the same one visible from the second-floor bedroom (fig. 21).

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Fig. 22, Studio window, western view, 2010. Photograph. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson. Image ©Peter Aaron/OTTO, courtesy of The Olana Partnership.

Perceptual manipulation continued to occupy Church more than a decade later when he added a studio wing. Here, too, he worked in the space between reality and representation. Serving as his own architect, Church oversaw the building of a large corridor and room off the west side of the house from 1888 to 1890. His design maintained the strong east-west axis of the original floor plan and the direct sight line from the front door through to this new room. It also enabled Church to accentuate a Catskill Mountain vista by opening up the western wall of the studio room with a large window. Around it, he created a border of amber-tinted glass with floral elements stenciled in black paint that builds to form a gentle arch at the top of the window (fig. 22). Much like the framing quality of the Ombra and the decorative window border in the Churches’ bedroom, this design ploy simultaneously registers both the view outside and the window scene’s pictorial quality: Is it a picture frame or a window jamb?

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Fig. 23, Larry Lederman, Studio corridor with tapestry and pier glass, ca. 2017. Photograph. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson. Image ©Larry Lederman.

In the wide, light-filled corridor leading to the studio, Church installed these kinds of optical juxtapositions as well. By the 1880s, big sheets of plate glass had become more readily available, and Church made use of this advance to line the south-facing wall with four large windows, set side by side for a sweeping view of the Hudson River Valley.‍[43] The long wall opposite the windows features two commanding works of art: at one end, closest to the studio, an enormous seventeenth- or eighteenth-century European tapestry with an outdoor scene; at the other, a large vertical mirror, also known as a pier glass, resting on a short stand and extending from floor to ceiling (fig. 23). Perhaps not surprisingly, both pieces highlight landscape as subject matter.‍[44] The tapestry’s scene of a stately building set amidst lush, gentle woods presents an idealized, artist’s rendition of the natural world. It’s hard not to see the mirror in the room as a companion to the tapestry, pointing to an issue at the heart of representational art making for Church: that is, how one sees, not physiologically but phenomenologically. As a perfect reflection of the landscape through the windows, the mirror offers one kind of viewing experience, that of literal re-presentation. The tapestry evokes another, that of imaginative interpretation.

Church spent his artistic life contending with these matters of nature and its depiction. His library at Olana suggests his intellectual investment in them too. Among his many volumes are works by John Ruskin and Alexander von Humboldt, cultural figures of the period also passionate about both the natural world and issues of its pictorial representation.‍[45] By the time Church built the studio wing in the late 1880s, he had scaled back from oil painting. Some of that had to do with shifts in landscape tastes away from large-scale, meticulously rendered vistas that had earlier secured his reputation. But Church also increasingly suffered from rheumatoid arthritis that twisted his fingers and made extensive brushwork difficult. In a letter to his friend Charles Dudley Warner from July 1888, penned as he was working on architectural plans for the studio, he wryly commented on the purpose of the room: “I can fancy the thought now passing your mind—‘Building a Studio at his age and with his infirmities!’ Well, we will call it a Mausoleum.”‍[46] At age sixty-two, Church’s legacy may well have been on his mind. In that respect, his interior design of the studio wing stands out as a personal monument not only to his lifelong commitment to depicting the natural world but also to his enduring interest in the perceptual experience of it.

Designing with Light

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Fig. 24, View from dining room/gallery into east parlor, 1998. Image courtesy of John G. Waite Associates, Architects.

Even after having lived at Olana for years, Church could still wax enthusiastic about conditions of light observable from his windows. In a letter to Erastus Dow Palmer in 1891, he apologized for his absentmindedness, explaining: “well it is owing to the magnificent effects this morning—beautiful clouds, an opalescent atmosphere, and lovely tints in the landscape distract me every minute.”‍[47] The light effects that Church appreciated outside, he echoed inside when designing the house, notably on the first floor. Part of this he achieved through his large windows. They make the outdoors distinctly visible. But, equally important, they also bring the play of sunlight and shadow into the interiors. Church effected that even more by placing openings, whether windows or doors, opposite each other to form clear sight lines. The northern bank of windows in the dining room/gallery, for example, face the south-facing windows of the east parlor (fig. 24) and, indeed, mirror each other in design. Similarly, the great arched window on the stair landing visually links with the large Court Hall window that looks south down the Hudson River through the Ombra.

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Fig. 25, View south from Court Hall, 2020. Animated time-lapse photography. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson. Photography by Krista Caballero; animation by Allan McLeod.
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More than just sight lines, these paired openings create what I would term “light lines”: they channel sunlight all through the first floor of the house in a grid pattern. In addition to the axial window pairings above, the front door lines up through the center of the house with the window in the studio looking out onto the Catskills (what would have been exterior doors before Church’s construction of the studio wing). Certainly a practical benefit of this cruciform layout in the summer months would have been the circulation of air, but the central floor plan also works to capture and track the progress and changes of sunshine and shade over the course of a day. By engaging with real time through fluctuating light effects, Church was able to incorporate movement into spaces and enliven his interiors (figs. 25, 26).

Fig. 26, View of stair hall, 2020. Animated time-lapse photography. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson. Photography and animation by Krista Caballero.
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Fig. 27, Larry Lederman, Front door, ca. 2017. Photograph. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson. Image ©Larry Lederman.

Particularly conspicuous are the multimedia, fully dimensional compositions he created in the darker, transitional areas of the house: the vestibule and the stair hall. Here, Church managed objects and light as if wielding a paintbrush. Both spaces feature windows with amber-tinted panes and delicately cut black paper in a geometric pattern to evoke filtered light, reminiscent of stained glass. In fact, stained glass was a popular feature in domestic architecture at the time, typically employed as another type of decorative material, albeit luminous, to represent two-dimensional narrative or still life scenes, figural and/or floral.‍[48] Church’s use of tinted glass, however, works to achieve the exact opposite effect: not to decorate but to amplify the presence and intensity of light. In addition to stained-glass examples closer to home, another source of inspiration may also have been wooden screens to filter light that Church would likely have seen in houses during his travels through Ottoman Syria.‍[49] In either case, Church’s amber-tinted glass designs stand out as an unusual adaptation to specifically spread an endlessly warm glow through the surrounding space. Church used the technique in the arched tympanum above the front doors. He also placed small bands of actual wood latticework over amber-tinted panes in the middle of the doors as well (fig. 27) and, later, when he designed the studio wing, he included a paper-and-pane window in the corridor. The most arresting example, however, comes from the window in the stair landing, given its sheer size. The broad expanse of tinted panes and black paper keep a steady, mellow light in place throughout the stair hall, whether cloudy or sunny outside. It contrasts with the naturally lit illumination from the clear glass window opposite in the Court Hall. To great effect, and perhaps even more striking, the amber window works in conjunction with a carefully arranged collection of burnished metal objects filling the stair hall.

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Fig. 28, Stair-hall ensemble, ca. 2010. Photograph. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson. Image ©Melanie Hasbrook, courtesy of The Olana Partnership.

Church brought the space alive by turning it into a study of luminous forms—in essence, a visual microenvironment of reflected and refracted light (fig. 28). The amber glow of the stair-hall window is enhanced by the orange tone of the ceiling paint. It is further augmented in the polished brass of the handrail that winds up to the second story and the hefty newel post cap at the base of the stairs. Church also used gilding on the wood paneling underneath the upper set of stairs and, in the recessed area (below the landing and between the stair sets), he organized an ensemble of metal objects. Documented already in 1878, it includes a bundled group of weaponry set on a table. Soaring into the air are two lances and a spear, their tips positioned so that they are perfectly framed by the central amber pane of the stair-hall window. More burnished metal ware rests on the table as well as on the floor nearby.

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Fig. 29, Robert and Emily de Forest, Stair hall with hanging scroll, October 11, 1884. Photograph. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, OL.1986.378.32.A. Courtesy of Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

To this already lustrous collection, Church added a brilliantly gilded Buddha. Originally, it seems to have been on a pedestal on the landing but was later moved to a small niche of its own directly under the upper stairs.‍[50] It is linked both thematically and visually with a large hanging scroll on the nearby wall. Recorded in photographs by 1884 (fig. 29), the Nehan zu scroll depicts the death of the historical Buddha and features the color gold. Like the statue, it offers yet another layer of refracted light, as would have also been the case of a textile with gold and silver threads that likely hung directly behind the weaponry group.‍[51] In this contained and controlled space, Church used multiple media across surfaces to create an ambient light show of sorts.

Indeed, throughout the house and in numerous design details, he sought ways to animate flat surfaces. Upstairs, the choices of wallpaper in the bedrooms exploit pattern and color to manifest a sense of depth. Throughout the first floor, the artist introduced materials and created designs specifically to catch light and move it around. Although now heavily oxidized, the installation of multiple brass studs on interior archways in the Court Hall and the use of metallic paints for the stenciling on interior doors created shimmering effects and pops of brilliance. Church painted the wide expanse of the Court Hall ceiling in a high-gloss paint that similarly bounces light. Yet, in one room Church chose a wall color not so much to intensify light as to absorb it. The transitional space of the vestibule, the room onto which the main doorway of the house opens, is painted a deep purple. That dark tone, I would suggest, establishes an intentional moment of ocular recalibration from outside to inside, a chromatic hush before one fully encounters the dynamic lightscape of Church’s interiors (see fig. 27).

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Fig. 30, Frederic Edwin Church, Color swatch for principal rooms of the first story, Olana, ca. 1872–74. Oil and graphite on paper. Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, OL.1982.759. Courtesy of Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.

From the surviving swatches he prepared, we know that Church gave careful consideration to the hues and tones of the paint pigments used for his walls and ceilings. One such swatch lays out in rows possible colors for different main rooms on the first floor (fig. 30). Former Olana curator Karen Zukowski suggests that Church did this to coordinate the wall and ceiling colors with decorative patterns on the arches and around doors,‍[52] but it is equally likely that he was also working out schemes to mix color and light, and to bring color elements from the sunsets or sunrises outside his windows into his rooms. It is tempting to see an even more direct correlation in Church’s choice of wall colors with times of day: as one moves from the eastern side of the house to the western side, room colors evocatively parallel the changing tones of natural light from morning to evening. Light gray walls, for example, characterize the east parlor. In the Court Hall, yellow walls predominate—more of a high-noon brightness. Corresponding to afternoon tones, Church used a browner shade of gray on the walls in the sitting room (the western side of the house) than in the east parlor and featured a salmon color within the recesses of the room’s window and exterior door. Despite being built more than ten years later, the studio extension on the west side of the house carries through this scheme.‍[53] Suggesting the culmination of the day, the wing is painted with the darkest colors compared to the other rooms just mentioned: greenish-gray walls in the corridor and a terracotta color for the studio. In all of their facets, Church’s interiors become a circulation of references—inside and outside, real and illusory, fixed and temporal—ultimately a meditation on light and seeing.

We might think of Olana as a Church picture opened up. Or a medium unbound. Experimenting with modes of visual perception and bodily sensation, Church made looking at a painting seem like a view of actual nature and looking at nature seem like a painted picture. Indeed, the distinction, Church might have argued, is hardly as stark or fixed as we are inclined to believe because, at root, both are about an experience of light. As publicly successful as Church was in using oil and canvas to depict the natural world, such two-dimensional materials required from him—as from all landscape artists—compressions of time and space, as well as light. While the pictorial innovations of his most well-known paintings, Niagara and Heart of the Andes, resisted the limits of the medium, they also demonstrate his need for alternatives and his subsequent turn, given the aesthetic imperatives at play, to interior design and landscaping. In developing Olana, Church was free to explore these more elastic, three-dimensional modes of expression and materials. Real time and space became fully integrated into an artistic practice that he maintained beyond the commercial art world. For over three decades, Church worked continuously on his private realm. Exterior and interior cannot be understood as independent entities. Church’s floor plan, fenestration, and design components were all about their interrelationship. At Olana Church designed interiors to be in constant engagement with the light and the land of the outdoors he in turn landscaped.


I would like to thank both The Olana Partnership, particularly Ida Brier, William Coleman, Allegra Davis, Melanie Hasbrook, as well as Sean Sawyer and Mark Prezorski, and the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, especially Amy Hausmann and Hajime Stickel, for their extensive help in making this project possible.


[1] Grace King to May King (McDowell), June 7, 1887, Special Collections, Hill Memorial Library, Louisiana State University Libraries, Baton Rouge, LA; transcription in Olana Research Collection, Olana State Historic Site, Hudson, NY [hereafter ORC].

[2] Jennifer Raab’s Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015) offers the most recent and thorough examination of Church’s major paintings and his landscaping of Olana. David C. Huntington initially launched Church scholarship with his dissertation and the book that followed, The Landscapes of Frederic Edwin Church: Vision of an American Era (New York: G. Braziller, 1966). Subsequent foundational work on Church’s painting and drawing include Franklin Kelly et al., Frederic Edwin Church (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1989); Gerald L. Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: Catalogue Raisonné of Works of Art at Olana State Historic Site, 2 vols. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994); Gerald L. Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: In Search of the Promised Land (New York: Berry-Hill Galleries, 2000); and Kevin J. Avery, Church’s Great Picture: The Heart of the Andes (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1993). John K. Howat’s Frederic Church (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005) provides an important overview of Church’s life and art practice. The major work on Church’s house design includes James Anthony Ryan’s important Frederic Church’s Olana: Architecture and Landscape as Art (Hensonville, NY: Black Dome, 2001); Mercedes Volait, “‘For the Enjoyment of Fine Architecture.’ Olana: A Persian-Style Home,” in Frederic Church, A Painter’s Pilgrimage (Detroit, MI: Detroit Institute of Arts, 2017), 193–213; Karen Zukowski, “A New Jerusalem,” in Frederic Church’s Olana on the Hudson: Art, Landscape, Architecture, ed. Julia B. Rosenbaum and Karen Zukowski (New York: Rizzoli Electa, 2018). Two site reports provide invaluable resources: Karen Zukowski, Historic Furnishing Report for Olana State Historic Site: A History of the Interiors, Thoughts on Their Significance, and Recommendations for Their Restoration, unpublished report, April 2001, The Olana Partnership and New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, ORC; and John G. Waite Associates, Olana: Historic Structure Report, unpublished report, 2001, The Olana Partnership, ORC.

[3] What is often described as the “sensory turn” in humanities scholarship (particularly in anthropology) emphasizes the range of human sensory experience, beyond sight alone. See, in particular, Barbara Montero, “Proprioception as an Aesthetic Sense,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 64, no. 2 (Spring 2006): 231–42; Robin Skeates, “Introduction: Towards an Archaeology of the Senses,” in An Archaeology of the Senses: Prehistoric Malta, ed. Robin Skeates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 1–25; Caroline Jones, “Senses,” in Critical Terms for Media Studies, ed. W. J. T. Mitchell and Mark B. N. Hansen (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010), 88–100; and Tim Ingold, “The Eye of the Storm: Visual Perception and the Weather,” Visual Studies 20, no. 2 (2005): 97–104.

[4] Frederic Church to William Henry Osborn, July 22, 1871, ORC.

[5] Martha J. Lamb, ed., The Homes of America (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879), 177. An earlier and nearly identical version of this description had appeared in The Art Journal (August 1876): 247–48.

[6] Frederic Church to Amelia Edwards, September 2, 1877, Sommerville College Library, Oxford University, Oxford, UK; transcription in ORC. Earlier, he had talked about getting his “architecture from Persia where I have never been.” Frederic Church to John Ferguson Weir, June 8, 1871, Weir Family Papers, 1823–1930, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC; transcription in OCR. Church’s motifs draw on pattern books he owned, including Pascal Coste, Monuments moderns de la Perse (Paris, 1867); and Jules Bourgoin, Les Arts arabes (Paris, 1868); as well as architectural examples he saw while traveling in Ottoman Syria. Zukowski discusses design sources related to the Court Hall’s arches, spandrels, and stenciling patterns in the Historic Furnishing Report, 238–43. Hanan K. Munayyer compellingly suggests Palestinian garments, which Church saw abroad and also collected, as another source; see her talk in the Subject Specialist series, June 25, 2020, The Olana Partnership, accessed May 20, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/.

[7] Susan Stein reproduces a Hunt elevation for Church’s house in “Role and Reputation: The Architectural Practice of Richard Morris Hunt,” in The Architecture of Richard Morris Hunt, ed. Susan Stein (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1986), 113. Plans by Hunt in Olana’s collection include: OL.1984.390 and OL.1980.1622. For a concise overview of Church’s development of Olana, see James Anthony Ryan, “Frederic Church’s Olana: Architecture and Landscape as Art,” in Frederic Edwin Church, ed. Franklin Kelly (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1989), 126–56.

[8] Frederic Church to Erastus Dow Palmer, March 10, 1868, Erastus Dow Palmer Papers, Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, NY; transcription in OCR.

[9] Isabel Carnes Church, Middle Eastern diary, 1868, p. 64; typescript in OCR (original missing).

[10] Francis Kowsky, Country, Park & City: The Architecture and Life of Calvert Vaux (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 212. See also Calvert Vaux, Villas and Cottages: A Series of Designs Prepared for Execution in the United States (1864; repr. New York: Dover Publications, 1970), 198–202. Hunt’s original floor plan of 1867 had included a square hall, but overall the house was designed as a long, rectangular structure. As idiosyncratic as his architectural plan was, Church followed in the tradition of nineteenth-century Hudson Valley artists who built their own homes and studios. See Sandra S. Phillips and Linda Weintraub, Charmed Places: Hudson River Artists and Their Houses, Studios, and Vistas (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1988).

[11] For a compilation of architectural drawings and sketches of the house, see John G. Waite Associates, Olana: Historic Structure Report, 100–114. For the dining room/gallery and stair hall configuration change, see in particular OL.1982.1124 and OL.1982.1107.

[12] While axial, the exact orientation of the house is skewed somewhat off the cardinal points, so that the building, and specifically the windows of the east parlor, the Court Hall, and the sitting room, faces a more southwesterly direction to look out directly, as James Ryan has noted, onto the bend in the Hudson River; see Ryan, “Frederic Church’s Olana: Architecture and Landscape as Art,” 135. For the purposes of my discussion, I will refer simply to north-south and east-west axes.

[13] Erkki Huhtamo, Illusions in Motion: Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2013) offers an in-depth discussion of the moving panorama’s development and circulation but also addresses dioramas and magic lanterns in chapters 5 and 9, respectively. Kevin J. Avery’s excellent “‘The Heart of the Andes’ Exhibited: Frederic E. Church’s Window on the Equatorial World,” American Art Journal 18, no. 1 (Winter 1986): 52–72 connects panoramic techniques to art exhibitions particularly in relation to Church. See also Alan Wallach, “Accounting for the Panoramic in Hudson River School Landscape Painting,” in New World: Creating an American Art, ed. Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser (Munich: Hirmer, 2007), 78–89.

[14] Stephen Oettermann, The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium, trans. Deborah Lucas Schneider (New York: Zone Books, 1997): 9–11. The term (from the Greek for an allover or total view) came into existence only in the late 1700s to describe the optical novelty of painted expanses hung in a round exhibition hall. For succinct discussions of the panorama aesthetic throughout the US and Europe, see Scott B. Wilcox, “Unlimiting the Bounds of Painting,” in Panoramania! The Art and Entertainment of the “All-Embracing View, ed. Ralph Hyde (London: Barbican Art Gallery, 1988); Alan Wallach, “Wadsworth’s Tower: An Episode in the History of American Landscape Vision,” American Art 10, no. 3 (Autumn 1996): 8–27; and Veronica della Dora, “Putting the World into a Box: A Geography of Nineteenth-Century ‘Traveling Landscapes,’” Geografiska Annaler. Series B, Human Geography 89, no. 4 (2007): 287–306.

[15] Jessica Skwire Routhier, “‘A More Perfect View Thereof’: Landscape, Religion and the Artistic Underpinnings of the Panorama,” in The Painter’s Panorama: Narrative, Art and Faith in the Moving Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress (Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2015), 16–18. Erkki Huhtamo cites an undated broadside, possibly from the 1850s, advertising a Pilgrim’s Progress panorama that lists the name “Church” as one of the illustrators in Illusion in Motion, 208n80.

[16] Jervis McEntee diary, entries for March 6, 1884; January 9 and February 5, 1886; and February 14, 1888, Jervis McEntee papers, 1796, 1848–1905, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, https://www.aaa.si.edu/.

[17] Alexander von Humboldt, Cosmos: A Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe, vol. 2, trans. E. C. Otté (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1870), 98.

[18] During the mid-1850s, Church made multiple trips to Niagara, producing works that adhere to this more conventional paradigm; oil sketches such as Niagara Falls of 1856 (Wadsworth Atheneum) or Horseshoe Falls from December 1856 / January 1857 (Olana State Historic Site) represent this model.

[19] Joseph Earl Arrington, “Godfrey N. Frankenstein’s Moving Panorama of Niagara Falls,” New York History 49, no. 2 (April 1968): 169–99. Jeremy Elwell Adamson provides an overview of panorama and photographic representation of the falls in this period in “Nature’s Grandest Scene in Art,” in Niagara: Two Centuries of Changing Attitudes, 1697–1901 (Washington, DC: Corcoran Gallery of Art, 1985), 58–61.

[20] “The Heart of the Andes,” Boston Courier, December 16, 1859, OCR.

[21] Unidentified Chicago newspaper, January 11, 1861, OCR. The folder contains clippings from a range of city papers relating the same dramatic effect.

[22] “Mr. Church’s New Picture,” The New York Times, April 29, 1859, 5.

[23] Avery, Church’s Great Picture, 34, as well as his discussion of the viewer/frame relation in “‘The Heart of the Andes’ Exhibited,” 57–58. Avery notes in the article (p. 60) the distress of certain reviewers who condemned the frame precisely for aiding the confusion between reality and illusion and saw it simply as pandering to popular taste.

[24] Raab discusses specific stereoscopic elements in the painting in Frederic Church: The Art and Science of Detail, 84. Stereoscopic effects also characterized Church’s fellow landscapist Albert Bierstadt. See Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock, “Stereoscopic Photography and the Western Paintings of Albert Bierstadt,” The Art Quarterly 33, no. 4 (Winter 1970): 360–78; and Kirsten M. Jensen, “Seeing in Stereo: Albert Bierstadt and the Stereographic Landscape,” Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide 12, no. 2 (Autumn 2013): https://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/autumn13/jensen-on-albert-bierstadt-and-the-stereographic-landscape. Laura Burd Schiavo stresses the importance of the stereoscope in this period in “From Phantom Image to Perfect Vision: Physiological Optics, Commercial Photography, and the Popularization of the Stereoscope,” in New Media, 1740–1915, ed. Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003), 113–37.

[25] Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser discusses the beginnings of Colt’s art gallery in her “Introduction: The History of a Collection,” American Paintings Before 1945 in the Wadsworth Atheneum, vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1996), 24–28. See also Church’s detailed letter of advice: Frederic Church to Elizabeth Hart Jarvis Colt, September 7, 1866, Curatorial File, Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.

[26] Suzanne Smeaton, “Style Snapshot, Hudson River School Frame,” Picture Framing Magazine, November 2006, 112. In a personal conversation (August 2019), Suzanne Smeaton emphasized its distinctiveness and its departure from typical frames of the period. The exact dimensions of the work are: 48 5/16 in. x 84 5/8 in. (canvas); 66 3/4 in. x 103 1/4 in. x 5 3/4 in. (frame). On the history of frames and framing aesthetics in the United States, see Eli Wilner, ed., The Gilded Edge: The Art of the Frame (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000).

[27] Ingold, “The Eye of the Storm,” 101.

[28] Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830–1880 (New York: Henry N. Abrams, Inc., 1998), 21. I follow Jones Harvey in her use of the term “sketch”; see her discussion pages 17–19.

[29] Frederic Church to Martin Johnson Heade, January 6, 1871, Martin Johnson Heade Papers, 1853–1904, box 1, folder 2, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC, https://www.aaa.si.edu/.

[30] Jones Harvey, The Painted Sketch, 15. Other studies that have treated Church’s sketches include: Elaine Evans Dee, Frederic E. Church: Under Changing Skies. Oil Sketches and Drawings from the Collection of the Cooper Hewitt, National Museum of Design, Smithsonian Institution (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 1992); Gerald L. Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: Romantic Landscapes and Seascapes (New York: Adelson Galleries, 2007); and Andrew Wilton, Frederic Church and the Landscape Oil Sketch (London: National Gallery Company, 2013).

[31] Matthew C. Hunter, “Graphic Making, Actuarial Knowing: Transfer and Countertransference in Frederic Edwin Church’s South American Drawings,” West 86th 23, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2016): 56–78. I thank Maura Lyons for bringing this article to my attention.

[32] OL.1980.1562; catalogued as no. 663 in Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: Catalogue Raisonné, 1:459. Hunter, “Graphic Making, Actuarial Knowing,” 67, discusses Church’s refinement of Cole’s numerical method.

[33] Joyce Zucker and H. Travers Newton, “The Examination and Treatment of Church’s The After Glow,” in Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: Catalogue Raisonné, 1:517.

[34] Winthrop and Church had traveled to Maine’s Mt. Katahdin in September 1856. Winthrop was an early casualty of the Civil War and the book was posthumously published. Theodore Winthrop, Life in the Open Air, and Other Papers (Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1863), 108; quoted in Jones Harvey, The Painted Sketch, 51.

[35] Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: Catalogue Raisonné, 1:349. On pages 377–79, Carr details Church’s sketches of Olana scenes.

[36] See Carr, Frederic Edwin Church: Catalogue Raisonné, 1:447, 2: pl. 41.

[37] Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists: American Artist Life (New York: G. P. Putnam & Son, 1867), 375.

[38] Frederic Edwin Church to Erastus Dow Palmer, October 18, 1884, Erastus Dow Palmer Papers, Albany Institute of History and Art, Albany, NY; transcription in OCR. By the 1880s Church suffered from debilitating rheumatoid arthritis that affected his painting and drawing. I am less inclined, however, to read this statement to Palmer as a defensive rationale for producing less, because of what I see as a long trajectory of Church’s interest in perceptual issues going back to the 1850s.

[39] F[rancis] N[ichols] Zabriskie, “‘Old Colony’ Papers: An Artist’s Castle, and Our Ride Thereto,” Christian Intelligencer (New York), September 10, 1884, 2.

[40] H[enry] Hudson Holly, Modern Dwellings in Town and Country (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1878), 66. In the preface, Holly mentions earlier articles of his as the inspiration for the book.

[41] Frank J. Bonnelle, “In Summer Time on Olana,” Boston Sunday Herald, September 7, 1890, 17.

[42] Known as The Hudson Valley in Winter from Olana (oil on paper mounted to canvas), this piece is in the Olana State Historic Site collection, OL.1981.14.

[43] Invoices from the firm of E. F. Holbrook and Brothers of New York City for plate glass are in the Olana Research Collection. John G. Waite Associates, Olana: Historic Structure Report, 41ff., discusses the studio construction materials, including the window glass. For a brief overview of the material, see Kenneth M. Wilson, “Plate Glass in America: A Brief History,” Journal of Glass Studies 43 (2001): 141–53.

[44] Karen Zukowski alludes to this similarity in Historic Furnishings Report, part 2, 508. See also her argument on p. 515 for the likelihood of the tapestry hanging on the corridor wall during Church’s lifetime.

[45] Among the Ruskin books in Church’s collection at Olana were Modern Painters (London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1856); The Seven Lamps of Architecture (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1849); and The Elements of Perspective (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1870). Humboldt’s books included Aspects of Nature, in Different Lands and Different Climates (London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans; and John Murray, 1849); Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1852); and the multiple volumes of Cosmos.

[46] Frederic Church to Charles Dudley Warner, July 23, 1888, OL.1985.36A, Collection Olana State Historic Site; quoted in Zukowski, Historic Furnishings Report, part 2, 428.

[47] Frederic Church to Erastus Dow Palmer, April 19, 1891, Collection Albany Institute of History & Art Library, Albany, NY; transcription in OCR.

[48] See H. Weber Wilson, Great Glass in American Architecture: Decorative Windows and Doors before 1920 (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1986), 30–42, for an overview of stained-glass designs in the 1870s in domestic residences. Hudson Holly, Modern Dwellings, 67, specifically suggests the use of stained glass for staircase windows. See also Mary Gay Humphreys, “Colored Glass for Home Decoration,” The Art Amateur, June 1881, 14–15. Humphreys made a point of noting the “purely decorative” use of colored glass (p. 14).

[49] Volait, “‘For the Enjoyment of Fine Architecture,’” 198. See also Zukowski, Historic Furnishings Report, part 2, 244. In the studio addition, Church hung an actual carved wooden screen over the northern window that he could raise and lower.

[50] A painting of the Court Hall by a family friend from 1878 shows the sculpture on the landing, while in later photographs, it appears in the niche below. Zukowski, Historic Furnishings Report, part II, 327.

[51] Both the textile and the scroll are documented in photographs dated to 1884 but are not currently in the house due to their deteriorated condition. Zukowski details the décor of the stair hall in the Historic Furnishings Report, part 2, 299, 327–38, 343–44. While it’s unlikely any of the metalwork was polished to a high gloss given the interest in “old-looking” objects, these materials are far less lustrous now than they would have been in Frederic and Isabel’s time. See the Historic Furnishings Report, part 1, xxv.

[52] Zukowski, Historic Furnishings Report, part 2, 170–71. This particular swatch in the Olana collection is OL.1982.759. See also Ryan’s discussion of Church’s painted house decoration in Frederic Church’s Olana, 40–44.

[53] I am grateful to one of the anonymous readers for encouraging this reading.