Written by Debbie Bruno of the Washington Post
It happened as we drove one evening across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge in New York’s Hudson Valley. As the sun slipped behind the jagged edge of the Catskill Mountains to the west, the clouds lit up, making a pink-and-golden canopy over our heads. The river sparkled beneath us. ¶ We were inside a Hudson River School painting. ¶ And, at the risk of waxing rhapsodic about the romantic landscapes created by 19th-century painters, we felt, for a moment, as if the great artists were looking down and smiling on us, their modern-day kindred spirits. ¶ After all, we were halfway between Olana, the stunning Persian-style home of Frederic Edwin Church, and Cedar Grove, Thomas Cole’s estate near the western banks of the river. We were in the heart of the countryside that inspired them and their contemporaries, leading to the first truly American school of art. ¶ Hudson Valley was to them the “center of the universe,” according to Church and the other landscape painters who lived there and celebrated its natural beauty. “All nature here is new to art,” Cole wrote in 1836.
This is a great time to visit that center, as the middle stretch of the Hudson Valley digs deeper into its long history and adds a modern twist. The region, in fact, has become a hipster mecca of sorts, kind of a Brooklyn-on-the-Hudson, with a burgeoning farm-to-table restaurant movement, vineyards, art and gay-friendly communities.
At Olana, in the town of Hudson, the grounds are newly landscaped to re-create Church’s vision for his property. He wanted visitors strolling or riding in a carriage through it to be entertained by tree-framed vistas. After rheumatoid arthritis made it difficult for Church to paint in the last 10 years of his life, the land itself became his large-scale palette.
Now visitors can imagine themselves once again guests of the Churches, arriving at points in the landscape where panoramas of lake, mountains, river and trees made living art. At 10 points along the trails on the 250-acre estate, not only can you see 19th-century photographs of the way the land looked at the time, but you can also compare them to reproductions of the art that Church created from those scenes.