The Thomas Cole House, Olana, and Lyndhurst

Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance
CEDAR GROVE: THE THOMAS COLE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
MAY 1 - NOVEMBER 4, 2018

Costume & Custom: Middle Eastern Threads at Olana
OLANA STATE HISTORIC SITE, HUDSON, NY | JUNE 17 - NOVEMBER 25, 2018

Becoming Tiffany: From Hudson Valley Painter to Gilded Age Tastemaker
LYNDHURST, TARRYTOWN, NY | AUGUST 2 - SEPTEMBER 24, 2018

Mid-19th century clothing from the Olana collection and Cornell University Costume and Textile Collection on mannequins in the Court Hall at Olana. Photo: © Peter Aaron/OTTO.

Sleepy no more, the historic houses of the Hudson Valley have been invigorated with annual temporary exhibitions that enhance understanding of their fabrics and owners, and reward repeat visits. Cedar Grove, in Catskill, was the home and studio of Thomas Cole, the Lancashire-born artist who conceived a novel approach to landscape painting in America in the two decades before his death in 1848 (see my review of the Metropolitan Museum’s recent Cole show in the March 2018 Rail). Eastward across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge is the Olana complex, the 250-acre park and Hudson home of Cole’s pupil Frederic Edwin Church.

Visiting these two sites has always felt like an American pilgrimage of sorts, the artistic equivalents of Jefferson’s Monticello or Washington’s Mount Vernon. The neo-Persian house at Olana sits atop a hill, with panoramic and now-protected views from all around the property, including the river below and the Catskill Mountains to the west. The residence, farm, and extensive grounds demonstrate the power and capital of American creativity—yes, a career in painting paid for all this. New York State has at last recognized the critical importance of these two interconnected artists in the evolution of American culture, and plans are underway for a Hudson River Skywalk and series of trails that connect the two complexes, slated to be completed at the end of this year.

Since the River Crossings show, which I co-curated with Stephen Hannock at both institutions in 2015, they now regularly feature special exhibitions that highlight each site’s respective artists, their associates, and, increasingly, contemporary art from the Hudson Valley. The Cole house is at present hosting two such exhibitions. Picturesque and Sublime: Thomas Cole’s Trans-Atlantic Inheritance, a nicely organized complement to the Metropolitan’s recently closed exhibition, is installed in the artist’s rebuilt studio. Its concentrated and effective display features notable loans from the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, and it is co-curated by Yale professors Tim Barringer (who also co-curated the Metropolitan’s show) and Jennifer Raab. In Cedar Grove, the house proper, is Spectrum, which I have not yet seen, co-curated by Kiki Smith and Kate Menconeri, and featuring eleven local artists working with color and responding to the house’s recently restored interiors.

Mid-19th century clothing from the Olana collection and Cornell University Costume and Textile Collection on mannequins in the Court Hall at Olana. Photo: © Jason Rosenfeld.

At the Olana house, guest-curator Lynne Bassett has installed costumes that Church collected in his travels and some of his sketches throughout the traditional rooms and in the small upstairs gallery. Both houses abjure wall texts in their historic rooms in favor of docents who guide visitors and explain the temporary displays, the history of the interiors, and the artists’ lives. It can be a lot for guides to cover in a short tour, and the thrust behind Olana’s costume exhibition is better understood through the concise catalogue, with its attractive installation photographs made by Peter Aaron. Church accumulated lots of materials on his various journeys, including sombreros from Mexico, a monkey skull, live donkeys from Syria to ferry associates from Hudson around the property, and Middle-Eastern clothing. The latter were used as props for figures who served as staffage in his pictures—small-scale accessories that provided local color and helped to establish foregrounds in his grand landscapes. For the figures in the left foreground of the magnificent oil El Kahsne, Petra (1874) in the Sitting Room, the jewel of the collection, Church posed and sketched the bearded model Benjamin Bellows Grant Stone at Olana in the requisite outfit, and then included him with other people in the finished work. But the diminutive figures are hardly visible in the darkened painting today, and would have been marginal even when first completed.

The immaculately preserved garments were more often employed as costumes for family and friends to dress up in at parties and holidays and for tableaux vivant. This latter use is what is most called to mind in Costume & Custom. Turn a corner upstairs into the Ombra room and there is a mannequin wearing a Bedouin man’s qumbaz (I think; nothing is labeled). It can be a little startling, and of course the figure has no relation to the finely restored late ninteenth-century American interior of the room. But it is fun to poke around and see these frozen sentinels in their remarkably intact, over-a-century-old duds staring blankly at art-trail visitors. The guides endeavor to bring the clothes to life, and the catalogue explains that Church was in the American vanguard, as in most of his pursuits, in collecting Palestinian and Syrian clothing, and he notably sought out working-class outfits. What is less clear is what is meant by “Palestinian” for a contemporary viewer—are they any people who lived in the Holy Land? Muslim? Christian? Did he buy Jewish clothing? Did these peoples all wear the same thing, dependent on what made sense for weather in the region, the available dyes, materials, occupations? Unlike Church’s great Pre-Raphaelite contemporary in England, William Holman Hunt (1827 – 1910), who made multiple trips to the Holy Land during this period, the American artist was not interested in reconstructing what the region looked like in the time of Christ for Biblical veracity in his pictures. He was not even interested in accuracy—although he rarely included women in these works, he sometimes dressed men in women’s clothing so the garments read as suitably exotic, or posed models with articles worn incorrectly. While Church was demonstrably interested in contemporary landscape, environs, and costumes, the latter were not the types of Middle-Eastern inspired clothes that wended their way into contemporary fashion design in the 1870s in New York’s stylish department stores. Yet, like Church’s pictures, they contributed to a generally fictionalized idea of life in the Middle East and to the iconography of the larger Orientalist movement of the period.

The most effective installation is in the house’s signature space, the Court Hall leading into the Stair Hall, where a light-peach dragoman’s suit—collected by Charley Langdon, brother-in-law to Mark Twain, and on loan from the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection—stands next to a brilliant gray-blue Ottoman Empire dragoman’s suit owned by Church. Dragomen were guides and interpreters for tourists, and hanging adjacent along the staircase there is a marvelous blown-up photograph of Church and his young son Frederic Joseph atop a camel whose reins are steadied by a similarly garbed dragoman in Beirut, Syria (1868). The catalogue notes that

most tourists to the region collected the flashy gold-embroidered garments of the urban upper class, and this is what generally survives in greatest numbers in museum collections. While several garments of that sort are included in Church’s collection, he seems to have been particularly interested in the garb that originated with the common people of the villages and desert—and that is what is primarily seen in his paintings.1

All this is compelling, if rooted in the past. Despite a short video from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art about clothing in contemporary Middle Eastern Art in its collection, unconnected to the Olana display, an opportunity has been missed to engage the present. Church and his toddler son, mother-in-law, and eventually very pregnant wife Isabel travelled through contemporary Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and then Switzerland and Rome. The catalogue notes that Damascus, which gave rise to the term “damask,” was famed for its textiles from ancient times, and that Aleppo was a commercial hub of textile production and trade. The enlightened attitudes of intrepid American travelers, who thrilled to the products of these age-old cultures, form a stark contrast to present perceptions of Syria, inflected by the misery of endless war and enveloped in a regrettably resurgent “Grand Game” involving Russia, Iran, and the United States. Here was an opportunity to highlight Church’s open-mindedness and inquisitiveness about the region and its various inhabitants from all classes, an admirable example for a wary and removed present.

Tiffany Studios, Peony library lamp, c. 1905, in the Dining Room at Lyndhurst. Leaded glass, bronze, 31 1/2 × 22 inches. The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, Queens, NY. Photo: © Jason Rosenfeld.

The interest in Middle Eastern subjects, materials, and design termed Orientalism is also present downriver from Olana at Lyndhurst in Tarrytown. This precursor to Church’s riparian retreat was built in two campaigns between 1838 and 1865 by the great American Gothic Revival architect and contemporary of Cole, Alexander Jackson Davis, and was occupied from 1880 by the railroad magnate Jay Gould. Unlike Church’s handcrafted house, which he designed and outfitted, the Lyndhust of today represents the renovations of Gould and his eldest daughter Helen, an aesthete and philanthropist who filled the home with sheer opulence culled from the best craftspeople in New York City.

The present exhibition concerns Louis Comfort Tiffany’s parallel evolution from painter to designer with new evidence of Helen’s patronage of Tiffany for Lyndhurst and the family’s Fifth Avenue mansion. Beautifully installed in the former carriage barn turned modest gallery space, the display also includes Tiffany lamps in ten rooms in the mansion. There are exquisite objects on loan from private and public collections in the United States and Great Britain, a good catalogue, and sharp wall texts written by Roberta A. Mayer and Lyndhurst’s director, Howard A. Zar.

Like Church, and around the same time, Tiffany traveled to the Mediterranean and the Middle East; the resulting Orientalist oils are more than competent, and the artist paid particular attention to locals and their clothing—in this sense the exhibitions at Olana and Lyndhurst are complementary. In addition, the National Trust-run Lyndhurst has attractive grounds that are presently being researched and restored to their nineteenth-century designs; it may well come to be seen as a kind of proto-Olana complex, only twenty-seven miles from Rockefeller Center, although it was the product of political and corporate wealth rather than an owner’s creative endeavor. Previously musty interiors, newly enlivened through such exhibitions, make for enlightened motoring up the various parkways and thruways that snake their way north from the New York metropolitan area. 

Notes

  1. Lynda Zacek Bassett, Costume and Custom: Middle Eastern Threads at Olana (Hudson: The Olana Partnership, 2018), 13.

Contributor

Jason Rosenfeld

JASON ROSENFELD, Ph.D., is Distinguished Chair and Professor of Art History at Marymount Manhattan College. He was co-curator of the exhibitions John Everett Millais (Tate Britain, Van Gogh Museum), Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde (Tate Britain and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.), and River Crossings (Olana and Cedar Grove, Hudson and Catskill, New York). He is a Senior Writer and Editor-at-Large for the Brooklyn Rail. 

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