- The Washington Times - Friday, July 29, 2005

COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. — Frederic Edwin Church knew how to work a 19th-century crowd. When he put a single 10-foot painting of an exotic South American landscape on display in a New York gallery, more than 500 people a day flocked to see it for weeks. In 1859, “The Heart of the Andes” provided a rare glimpse at the faraway lands that were intriguing explorers of the time.

Reminders of such career highlights were what Church chose for display inside Olana, the intricately designed Persian-style villa he had built in the 1870s on a hill overlooking the Hudson River.

For the first time, 18 oil paintings from Church’s personal collection are leaving the State Historic Site for a six-city traveling exhibition that opened last month at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown.

“Treasures From Olana: Landscapes by Frederic Edwin Church” showcases small-scale studies or sketches of his best-selling large pieces. Included is the study for “The Heart of the Andes,” which hung in Olana’s east parlor just off the home’s entryway. Church’s goal for the painting was to present the natural variety of Ecuador, from the lush jungles to the bare plateaus to the snowcapped peaks.

“He really took landscape around the world and brought his audience there with him,” says Paul D’Ambrosio, the museum’s chief curator. “You think of Church as somebody who was able to transport his audience to where he was.”

The centerpiece of the exhibit is “El Khasne, Petra,” produced exclusively for Church’s wife, Isabel, who was not with him when he visited the ancient city in present-day Jordan, which was rediscovered by archaeologists in the early 1800s.

The painting shows the facade of a classical temple cut from the cliffs, framed by the opening of a dark cavern. “Imagine this fairy like Temple blazing like sunlight among those savage black rocks,” Church wrote to a friend. He gave it a prominent place above a fireplace in Olana’s sitting room, opposite a window looking out on the Hudson.

“If you want a personal view of Church, if you want to understand him on the basis of what he chose to keep and live with, this is what you have to see so that you can understand what was important to him, Mr. D’Ambrosio says. “And you see virtually his entire career, his entire life in this group of paintings.”

Supplementing the Olana collection are several works on loan from museums, including a massive commissioned painting of the Parthenon.

Kevin Avery, an associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, calls the pieces he helped choose for the exhibit “the house’s truest treasures.”

“Their subjects were the compulsive artist’s original curiosities, the vivid wresting with his hands of the earthly and celestial objects of his eye, mind and imagination,” he writes in a companion book.

Born in 1826 into a wealthy family in Hartford, Conn., the 18-year-old Church became a student of Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole just before Cole’s death. Church got his start with pastoral scenes along the river, such as the one in “The Catskill Creek”: Green trees reflect on still water near a farmhouse, with mountains rising in the distance.

Church soon took on more fantastic subjects, as evidenced by his 1857 classic, “Niagara.” The study for the painting, with its point of view from the treacherous brink of the falls, is part of the touring show. He did another, “Under Niagara,” while “tossing in the surging foam” during a 40-minute boat voyage near the misty base of the falls, lending the work a sense of artistic immediacy.

Three of the exhibit’s paintings are from a trip to Jamaica during a time when Church’s work was intensely personal because he and his wife were mourning the sudden deaths of their first two children, just as the Civil War ended in 1865.

“They’re among the most obsessive in detail,” Mr. D’Ambrosio says. “It goes far beyond what you see even in his most accomplished works. You really see in this sense an outpouring of that grief, if not an attempt to alleviate it or escape from it.”

In particular, “Sunset, Jamaica” seems to express hope amid his grief. A burst of golden sunlight breaks through red and purple clouds at sunset.

It was a precursor to “The After Glow,” which stayed in the family and hung in Olana after Church’s parents and two sisters died. A devout Christian, Church tried to present natural beauty as a manifestation of the divine and evidence of spiritual certainty.

After arthritis limited his ability to paint, Church wintered in Mexico in the last years of his life. “Mexican Forest — a Composition,” depicting a wide, aging tree with many offshoots and a white bird flying toward patches of blue sky, hung in a studio Church added to the first floor of Olana around 1890.

Church died in 1900, but “Olana”— his three-dimensional masterpiece — stayed in the family until the state of New York acquired it in the 1960s.

The exhibit, on view at the Fenimore through Sept. 18, will be on tour for two years while parts of the estate close for preservation work. It moves to the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Oct. 9 through Jan. 8 ; National Design Museum, New York City, Feb. 9 through April 30 ; Portland Museum of Art, Maine, May 20 through Sept. 10 ; Huntington Library, San Marino, Calif., Oct. 14, 2006 through Jan. 3, 2007; and the Princeton University Art Gallery, Princeton, N.J., Jan. 27 through June 10, 2007.

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