First-time visitors to Olana, Frederic Church’s elegant, Persian-inspired hilltop estate outside Hudson, may find themselves taken aback when they enter what was once Isabel Church’s sitting room – especially if their acquaintance with pop culture is more intimate than their knowledge of the Hudson River School of art. There before them looms an image that they know they’ve seen in an Indiana Jones movie (The Last Crusade, to be precise): an exotic façade carved from rose-colored stone two millennia ago, brightly illuminated as the viewer approaches from the deep shadows of a siq or slot canyon.
The large painting is Church’s El Khasné, Petra (1874), depicting the dramatic entryway to the ancient Nabataean capital of Raqmu, called Petra (“Rock”) by the Greeks and today a UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Jordanian desert. As many as 20,000 people once lived in the Rose City at the height of its glory, thanks to a sophisticated water-harvesting system and proximity to a busy caravan route. Today, Petra is Jordan’s most famous tourism site, with hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, drawn by the spectacular rock-cut tombs of kings, pre-Islamic temples and ancient amphitheater.
But when Church came to Petra as part of his 1867/68 journey to Beirut, Damascus, Jerusalem and other Middle Eastern cities, it was still a place of mystery: Only 55 years had passed since its rediscovery by Swiss geographer Johann Ludwig Burckhardt, after having been forgotten by the outside world for nearly a millennium. Bedouins lived in Petra’s caves, later taking part in the 1917 rebellion against the Ottoman Turks stirred up by T. E. Lawrence – including, famously, a brigade of ferocious fighting women under the leadership of the wife of Sheik Khallil.
Barely visible in the dark foreground of El Khasné, Petra are a couple of small human figures in Bedouin dress. Church sketched on the road, but painted back home at Olana; and the costumes worn by the models in his Middle Eastern paintings were actual indigenous clothing that he collected in his travels and had shipped back to America, along with many of the home furnishings that still adorn the estate. This 19th-century textile collection is the focus of this summer’s special exhibition at the Olana State Historic Site: “Costume & Custom: Middle Eastern Threads at Olana,” which opened last Sunday, June 17.
This is the first time that the costumes Church collected on that journey have been thoroughly identified and exhibited in his home, alongside drawings, sketches and paintings inspired by his travels. They are displayed within the historic rooms of Olana’s main house, whose design was inspired by Church’s Middle Eastern travels and the artifacts that he brought home. Olana’s Sharp Family Gallery will present new research on the collection and its relationship to Church’s work and that of his contemporaries, including Church’s friend and guest at Olana, Mark Twain.
The wide array of historic costumes, often intricately embroidered, reflects the extraordinary craft and creativity of the Middle Eastern people who created it, and speaks as well to the evolution of ideas of gender and cultural identity in the Middle East and beyond. A publication developed in conjunction with this exhibition includes essays by costume historian Lynne Bassett and Palestinian costume expert Hanan Karaman Munayyer on the people who originally wore the clothing collected by Church, and on the artist’s use of historic costume in his home and art.
Olana will offer the first of twelve tours of its new exhibition, led by artists of Arab and Islamic descent, on Saturday, June 23. The tour series, arranged by the Institute of Arab and Islamic Art in New York City, begins with a 5 p.m. tour by Beirut-born artist Lara Atallah.
“Artists on Art tours are part performance, part interpretation, part radical departure from a traditional historic house tour,” said Amy Hufnagel, Olana’s director of education. “They offer a unique lens with which to ‘read’ Olana, and we give [the artists] the freedom to experiment and invent with ‘poetic license’ as they explore Frederic Church, Olana, American history and this season’s exhibition.”
Each tour lasts approximately one hour, followed by an optional discussion. Advance purchase of tickets is encouraged. To learn more, visit www.OLANA.org/calendar.
“Costume & Custom: Middle Eastern Threads at Olana” will be on display during regular museum hours through November 25. For more details, visit www.olana.org/current-exhibitions. The Olana State Historic Site is located at 5720 Route 9G in Hudson.