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Olana, resplendent once more, opens new spaces

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GREENPORT–Without fanfare the effort might warrant, Olana will open the second floor of painter Frederic Edwin Church’s Persian style home to the public Tuesday, June 8.

The folks at Olana have a lot to crow about. In addition to the presentation of a new gallery exhibition, a free afternoon program this Sunday, June 6, features two distinguished Church scholars. There’s also the discovery of a painting in the Olana collection now attributed to a prominent colleague of Church’s, and recently landscape here was compared with Central Park by no less than the Morgan Gallery in New York City.

No longer the faded dowager that those who visited the site in the 1980s may remember, the manse was restored in 2006-07 and now virtually radiates its eclectic mix of colors, patterns and decorative arts gathered by Church in the 19th century from all over the Middle East and Asia–or from domestic sources that mimicked the style of those cultures.

The Maurice and Evelyn Sharp Gallery, which opened in 2009 in two former bedrooms, this week presents its second exhibition “Fern Hunting among These Picturesque Mountains,” displaying works painted by Church on a trip to Jamaica in the summer of 1865, when the painter, his wife and artist friends Horace Robbins and Fritz Melbye visited the island. They made the trip after the tragic loss of the Church’s two small children to diphtheria, a shock that may have been intensified by the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln in April of that year.

On the island, Church painted, while his wife, Isabel, industriously collected and preserved fern specimens that existed in astonishing variety at the time and ranged in size from half an inch to eight feet, according to a letter from Church.

During a frenzy of exploration in the Blue Mountains, Church created many of his most remarkable oil sketches, some of which led to major studio works. The current exhibition consists of a selection of drawings and small oil works painted on paper, favorites of the artist that he mounted on canvas and framed. A highlight of the show is his remarkable canvas, “The Afterglow,” which seems to speak of Church’s own struggle with grief: the sun triumphantly shines through a veil of mist.

In an adjacent room, viewers can study works by artist friends of the painter, among them Charles de Wolf Brownell and Martin Heade.

One striking painting of a red and white horn-shaped Pelican flower, against a background of green leaves, is unsigned and was previously unidentified. But Olana Curator Evelyn Trebilcock now attributes it to the British explorer and botanical painter Marianne North, who traveled the world to paint flowers in situ, and whose collection is on permanent display today in a dedicated gallery at Kew Gardens in London. North was a friend of Church’s who visited Olana twice and may have given him the painting on one of those occasions.

Soon, costumes brought back from Turkey by Church will also be on display in the same second-floor hallway glass cabinet where they were displayed in during his lifetime, when the family and guests would enjoy wearing the costumes to dinner.

The master bedroom is furnished with original furniture and rugs, and a recreation of the resplendent multihued wallpaper that would have been lost had a scrap not been found behind a mantelpiece. Next door, in the dressing room, an unusual wall paper by today’s standards, with a crackle pattern, underscores a fascination with what was then called the Orient, a motif apparent throughout the house.

Along with all the activity planned for the site, a panel discussion held last week at the Morgan Gallery in New York City compared Church’s landscape design to that of Central Park. Olana Partnership president Sara Griffin called it “a watershed moment for us. This is the first time our landscape was paired with the quintessential Romantic Landscape design like Central Park. Both create a sense of the sublime with their sweeping views.”

Now that the house’s restoration is complete, work continues on the restoration of an old hay barn and the landscape–as much a product of Church’s creativity as any of his paintings.

On Sunday visiting scholars Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Wadsworth Atheneum, and Katherine E. Manthorne, professor of Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center, will present a free lecture developed from research for their essays in the “Fern Hunting among These Picturesque Mountains” exhibition catalogue. Their talk will discuss new findings on 19th-century American painters working in the tropics, Church’s role in inspiring these artists, and the influences and experiences that helped to shape him as an artist.

For more information about the lecture this and other programs go to www.olana.org or call (518) 828-0135.

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