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Primal Visions: Albert Bierstadt "Discovers" America, 1859-1893

 

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) is considered one of America's foremost landscape painters. His highly detailed, representational work assumes a pivotal role in American art history. The exhibition, Primal Visions: Albert Bierstadt "Discovers" America, 1859 - 1893, examines this legacy through fifty important works by Bierstadt and his contemporaries. Primal Visions, on view from June 1 - July 22, 2002, is organized by the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey, and is traveling to only two additional venues: the Columbus Museum of Art and the Crocker Art Museum. "Albert Bierstadt was, and is, one of the most significant landscape painters in American art history. The Crocker Art Museum is this exhibition's only west coast venue and Sacramento is very fortunate to have the opportunity to host this exhibition," shares Scott Shields, Chief Curator. (right: Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Winter Scene, 1872, oil on canvas, 32 1/8 x 48 1/8 inches, City of Plainfield, NJ)

Bierstadt, raised in Massachusetts from the age of two and later educated in Germany, intimately understood the tastes of Americans and Europeans alike. As the first internationally recognized artist to depict the West, Bierstadt was largely responsible for shaping a vision of America as the new Eden, appealing to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. His monumental canvases were based upon sketches and photographs Bierstadt began making in 1859, when he accompanied the federally sponsored Lander Survey to the Rocky Mountains. Although these paintings are rooted in natural reality, Bierstadt was a master at embellishing the truth.

Primal Visions highlights two of Bierstadt's most important paintings: Autumn in the Sierras (1873) and The Landing of Columbus (1892). These monumental six-by-twelve foot canvases exemplify the explorer's initial impressions of the New World. In this regard, Bierstadt's encounter with the pristine wilderness of the Sierra Nevada, and his romantic history painting of Columbus's discovery of America, may be termed primal visions. These and other Bierstadt paintings, along with works by his contemporaries Thomas and Edward Moran, Frederic E. Church, Jasper Cropsey and Eadweard Muybridge, record Bierstadt's experiences as an artist from his first trip West in 1859 to the closing of the frontier in the 1890s.

Although only the wealthiest individuals could afford to purchase Bierstadt's canvases, which in the 1860s
and 1870s commanded record-breaking prices, the artist's works were widely known. Bierstadt's sketches were frequently reproduced in popular magazines. The middle-class could also experience Bierstadt's large paintings firsthand, by paying admission to one-picture exhibitions, which sometimes went on tour in the tradition of moving cycloramas. Following the lead of his artistic rival Frederic Edwin Church, Bierstadt framed his paintings with draperies to give viewers the illusion of experiencing the frontier from a privileged picture window position.thus suggesting their dominion over it.

Primarily a landscape landscape painter, Bierstadt often included figures in his paintings, particularly Native Americans. Bierstadt had a genuine interest and respect for Native culture and collected Native American artifacts on his excursions west. Some of those artifacts are now part of the American Museum of Natural History and will be on view in Primal Visions. To modern viewers, however, Bierstadt's depictions of Native Americans are often overshadowed by his adherence to the nineteenth-century belief that people of European ancestry had a God-given right to inherit the continent. This is evident in both Autumn in the Sierras and The Landing of Columbus. Works created in response to this idea by contemporary artists Peter Edlund and Kay Walking Stick are included in the exhibition as a means of addressing this cultural imperialism.

In his own lifetime, Bierstadt was deeply concerned about the fate of his work, many of which he considered national treasures. Autumn in the Sierras is a spectacular representation of an area that the artist had visited while accompanying a government survey led by Clarence King in 1872. By including a party of explorers in the foreground, this painting literally depicts an initial encounter of the frontier by representatives of the federal government. As his career was beginning to wane, Bierstadt did all he could to encourage Congress to purchase this historic depiction of King's River Canyon. However, Congress rejected his request.

The ultimate decline of Bierstadt's reputation was his bankruptcy sale in 1895. Some of his most important work, despite their size, dropped from public consciousness and disappeared from the artist's documented production around the same time, and many of his paintings have since been effectively unavailable to the general public. With the relatively recent rise in appreciation for nineteenth-century American art, Bierstadt's reputation as one of America's foremost landscape painters has been revisited and affirmed. Audiences may once again appreciate the artist's extraordinary conceptions and techniques, as well as understand and consider his achievements in the context of his time.

Following is additional text from the Crocker Art Museum's ArtLetter, with nuances not covered in the above text:

Primal Visions: Albert Bierstadt Discovers America

In the second half of the nineteenth century, Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) was considered one of America's foremost landscape painters. By century's end, however, the artist's highly detailed, representational work had fallen out of favor, and it was not until the 1960s, when nineteenth-century American art began to be nationally re-appreciated, that Bierstadt assumed his pivotal role in American art history. The exhibition, Primal Visions: Albert Bierstadt "Discovers" America, examines this legacy through 50 important works by Bierstadt and his contemporaries. This show, opening at New Jersey's Montclair Art Museum, is traveling to only two venues: the Columbus Museum of Art and the Crocker Art Museum.

The exhibition highlights two of Bierstadt's most important paintings: Autumn in the Sierras (1873) and The Landing of Columbus (1892). These monumental six-by-twelve foot canvases exemplify an overarching theme in the artist's oeuvre -- the explorer's initial impressions of the New World. In this regard, Bierstadt's encounter with the pristine wilderness of the Sierra Nevada, and his romantic history painting of Columbus's discovery of America, may be termed primal visions. These and other Bierstadt paintings, along with paintings by contemporaries Thomas and Edward Moran, Frederic E. Church, Jasper Cropsey and Eadweard Muybridge, record Bierstadt's experiences as an artist from his first trip out West in 1859 to the closing of the frontier in the 1890s.

Bierstadt, who was raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts, from the age of two, was born and later educated in Germany. He intimately understood the tastes of Americans and Europeans, alike. As the first internationally recognized artist to depict the West, Bierstadt was largely responsible for shaping a vision of America as the new Eden, appealing to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. These monumental canvases were based upon sketches and photographs Bierstadt began making in 1859, when he accompanied the federally sponsored Lander Survey to the Rocky Mountains. Although these paintings are rooted in natural reality, Bierstadt was a master at embellishing the truth. In his large composite canvases, influenced by the detail-oriented Düsseldorf and Hudson River schools of painting, Bierstadt created theatrical fantasies of the frontier that satiated viewers' cravings.

Although only the wealthiest individuals could afford to purchase Bierstadt's canvases, which in the 1860s and 1870s commanded record-breaking prices, the artist's works were widely known. Bierstadt's sketches were frequently reproduced in popular periodicals, and a number of his major paintings were circulated as chromolithographs. The middle-class could also experience Bierstadt's large paintings firsthand, by paying admission to one-picture exhibitions, which sometimes went on tour in the tradition of moving cycloramas. Following the lead of his artistic rival Frederic E. Church, Bierstadt framed his paintings with draperies, as if they were baronial picture windows, to give viewers the illusion of experiencing the frontier from a privileged position -- thus suggesting their dominion over it.

Primarily a landscape painter, Bierstadt often included figures in his paintings, particularly Native Americans. Like many painters of his generation, Bierstadt believed he was being scientific and took great pains to render attire and physiognomies in an ethnographically correct manner. To be sure, Bierstadt had a genuine interest and respect for Native culture and collected Native American artifacts on his excursions west. Some of those artifacts are now part of the American Museum of Natural History and will be on view in the exhibition.

To modern viewers, however, Bierstadt's scientific intentions are often overshadowed by his adherence to the nineteenth-century belief in Manifest Destiny. This once pandemic notion, that people of European ancestry had a God-given right to inherit the continent -- is evident in both Autumn in the Sierras and The Landing of Columbus. Works created in response to this idea by contemporary artists Peter Edlund and Kay Walking Stick are included in the exhibition as a means of addressing this cultural imperialism.

In his own lifetime, Bierstadt was deeply concerned about the fate of his two important paintings, both of which he considered national treasures. Autumn in the Sierras is a spectacular representation of an area that the artist had visited while accompanying a government survey led by Clarence King in 1872. By including a party of explorers in the foreground, this painting literally depicts an initial encounter of the frontier by representatives of the federal government. Bierstadt did all he could to encourage Congress to purchase this historic depiction of King's River Canyon, just as his career was beginning to wane. Ignoring official protocol, Bierstadt used his connections to place the painting in the Capitol (1874), and later in the White House (1882). In 1893, a financially troubled Bierstadt renewed his request for the government to purchase Autumn in the Sierras, along with two other paintings. Congress rejected the appeal.

The Landing of Columbus, which was painted in 1893 -- the year the White House returned Autumn in the Sierras to the artist -- also failed to satisfy Bierstadt's objectives. Bierstadt created the painting in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus's historic voyage. The artist had intended this work to be exhibited at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. However, he withdrew the painting from competition after he realized that a jury would reject it, preferring modern French styles to his own, which still resembled mid-century German art.

The ultimate decline of Bierstadt's reputation was his bankruptcy sale in 1895. Both Autumn in the Sierras and The Landing of Columbus, despite their size, dropped from public consciousness and disappeared from the artist's documented production around the same time. The paintings finally found a home in New Jersey in the city of Plainfield's Municipal Court House in 1919, but have since been effectively unavailable to the general public. With the relatively recent rise in appreciation for nineteenth-century American art, Bierstadt's reputation as one of America's foremost landscape painters has been revisited and affirmed. Audiences may once again appreciate the artist's extraordinary conceptions and techniques, as well as understand and consider his achievements in the context of his time.

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