Images of Settlement and Exploration

by Lisa Reitzes



For viewers accustomed to the venerable mountains and pastoral river valleys of the Catskills and the Adirondacks, the extraordinary scenes of western exploration that began to appear in New York galleries in the 1850s must have been a revelation. Images of the Great Plains and the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, produced by painters and photographers accompanying army and railroad expeditions, were quickly in high demand. These epic landscapes -- filled with wider spaces and higher mountains than easterners had ever seen -- affirmed pre-Civil War notions of manifest destiny, the belief that the whole enormous continent was a divinely endowed wilderness to be claimed and conquered by settlers of European descent, despite the presence of native peoples. In 1869 a brochure promoting western emigration observed that "our land is ringed with the din of her internal improvements; cottages are springing up far away to the west upon sunny acres where, but yesterday, roamed the Indian and the buffalo."[2] Western landscapes also appealed to viewers who were aware that the mountains and valleys of the eastern "wilderness" were already being consumed by factories and forest clear-cutting. During and after the terrible rupture of the Civil War, western landscapes created the illusion of dramatic, idyllic places untouched by human violence and physical devastation. At the same time, these images also promoted the wealth and beauty of this rugged and seemingly pristine paradise as a resource for American industry to tap.

One of the most successful of the western landscape painters was Albert Bierstadt (Cat. Nos. 24,25), who was initially influenced by the poetic approach to landscape displayed by Cole and Frederic Edwin Church and who brought those sensibilities to his western travels. In several trips beginning in 1859, Bierstadt made sketches and photographs that he used as references when completing large-scale paintings in his New York studio. His series of paintings of the Sierra Nevada and Yosemite Valley in California helped to define the grand images of the mythic West that captured the American imagination through the end of the century. While his viewers were persuaded that they were encountering actual places, usually far from their own surroundings, audiences were also aware that Bierstadt possessed consummate skill in fashioning a landscape of grandeur and introspection, using the ingredients of topography, light, and weather to create a sublime drama of discovery and awe. In a pictorial culture that now included the photograph as a way of documenting the physical world, Bierstadt certainly understood that the role of the painter was to create an artful experience and expert storytelling. As expressed by a reporter in reference to one of Bierstadt's Sierra Nevada paintings, "we must allow the artist as well as the poet a little liberty in clothing his subjects with a pleasing and harmonious effect."[3]

Just as the landscape movement of the East Coast included a range of expressions from the grand opera of Cole and Church to the deep silences of John F. Kensett and Fitz Hugh Lane, so too western painters offered a variety of subjects, styles, and timbres to audiences increasingly eager for any imagery of the frontier. For instance, in contrast to the breathtaking panoramic views and high rhetoric of Bierstadt, the Ohio-born and European-trained Thomas Worthington Whittredge (Cat. Nos. 26, 42, 97) was drawn to the vastness and silence of the plains, and the English-born and Philadelphia-trained Thomas Hill (Cat. No. 43) concentrated on the majesty of the giant sequoias.


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