Autumn Fires: Fall Foliage Arrives at Olana—Inside and Out

by Melanie Hasbrook

Valerie A. Balint, Interim Director of Collections and Research

“When the autumn fires light up the landscape you will see Nature’s palette set with her most precious and vivid colors. . .” Frederic E. Church to fellow Hudson River School painter, Jervis McEntee, autumn 1874

For some time I have been patiently waiting for the trees to array themselves in their full autumnal splendor, and this past week I was finally rewarded! From my office window on the second floor of the main house I can still see vestiges of the swaths of orange, red and gold, with a glimpse of the majestic Catskill Mountains beyond. These ever-changing views are what Frederic Church was drawn to here, and later used as enticement for his friends and family to visit Olana—saying they were “worth a pilgrimage to see.” And today, hundreds and hundreds of visitors daily make that pilgrimage during these final weeks in October. For many of us who call the Hudson Valley home, we wait for this all year—the cleansing deep crisp of the air, the crystalline skies with brilliant evening effects, and the foliage that is a hallmark of the American northeast. In the 19th century Frederic Church and his Hudson River School compatriots chose to paint iconic landscape scenery in part to establish a national identity tied directly the country’s vast natural splendors. Perhaps none was more recognizable as distinctly “American” than the unique vivid colors associated with fall—colors which do not really occur with such stunning saturation anywhere else.

Decade after decade Church and his family would have enjoyed this seasonal transition. Yet it is on rare occasion that the great painter chose to capture it on canvas, although it was a favored subject by others such as Jasper Crospsy, Jervis McEntee and even Thomas Cole. One exception is his large work entitled simply Autumn (1856), inspired by Vermont locales, which now graces the walls of the East Parlor at Olana. Only several weeks ago, as we celebrated the official start of autumn and our height of season, this painting was returned from a year-long conservation treatment at the New York State Conservation Center and Labs in Waterford, NY. It had been the first time the work was off the wall in fifty years.

At the death of Sally Church in 1964, Olana’s paintings were initially tagged for sale by the auction house Parke-Bernet (now Sotheby’s). The paintings were removed and placed in the hands of a restorer, who touched them up in preparation for sale. Autumn had suffered some painting loss over its lifetime and the restorer overpainted these areas quickly and thickly, obscuring the delicate and masterful hand of Frederic Church in numerous areas of the canvas. Ultimately, with the saving of Olana, and its establishment as a NYS Historic Site in 1966, all of the paintings were returned. Those involved at Olana have been aware of the overpainting on Autumn for many years, but thinking about viable conservation was a daunting task given the initial losses which would be revealed if the overpaint was removed. So the painting stayed where it was.

With last year’s exhibition River Crossings and the placement of contemporary works in historic rooms, there was an opportunity to re-examine this project and the painting was taken down and conservation was undertaken. Paintings Conservator Mary Betlejeski and Frames Conservator Eric Price have both done a magnificent job in returning the painting to its former glory. The original warm glow of the sunlit center and a formerly obscured cloud are just a few of the important elements recovered through conservation. Details of the conservators’ extensive research and thoughtful conservation processes are well covered in an article written by Carole Osterink in Gossips of Rivertown.

It is a joy to have this work back on the wall. It is a unique painting in several ways. A related small oil sketch by Church is on view at nearby Vassar College; many students from the college have visited Olana not only since it opened to the public, but in Church’s time as well. As many know, few of Church’s large-scale studio exhibition works hang in the house. Autumn is a notable exception. As I always say when I am showing a group around, painters never made any money by keeping all their finished canvases on view in their own houses; they were meant to be sold and if one was lucky, the buyer would commission a work to be produced. Autumn was in fact purchased and likely commissioned by Church’s parents, who did this several times throughout his career. They did so in part because they appreciated his talents, but also I suspect to help establish a strong market value for his works.

The work was painted in 1856 on the eve of Church’s meteoric rise to fame and debut on the international art stage. It is the year before his ground-breaking Niagara Falls (National Gallery in D.C.) was produced, which set him on a huge trajectory of mammoth critical acclaim, public appreciation and financial success. Like many of Church’s large canvases, Autumn was exhibited in multiple cities including Hartford, New Haven, Boston, New York City, and Washington, bringing increasing visibility to Church. Some critics doubted whether such brilliant colors could ever be found in nature. Jasper Cropsey would encounter similar skepticism in 1860 when he exhibited his painting Autumn on the Hudson River in London, where he placed actual leaves near the canvas to prove his accuracy. Other writers praised Church’s coloring as truthful and compared him to the great British landscape painter James William Mallord Turner, who Church greatly admired. Autumn remained in Church’s parents’ Hartford home until their deaths in the mid-1880s, at which point Church brought the work back to Olana.

It is fitting that the work be conserved and rehung at Olana as we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Olana’s preservation and opening as a public museum. Long after this season’s leaves have fallen to the ground and winter sets in, the vibrant glow of the “autumn fires” Church masterfully captured in this painting will provide of a little piece of the heaven which is fall in the Hudson Valley.

On Saturday, November 26th, the conservators will be at Olana to present a public program on this conservation project.