The Elements of Western Art

by Peter Hassrick



Landscape as a Vision of National Identity


The third phase of western art occurred after the Civil War in the 1860s and 1870s. This phase represented essentially an abandonment of the genre and historical themes for less humanistic although no less compelling interpretations of the western landscape. Painters such as Albert Bierstadt, born and trained in Germany, and Thomas Moran, born in England and influenced by English painters, dominated the scene during these years. Just as the earlier historical and genre art had been influenced by English sporting art and tenets of German academic painting, the landscape pictures of these later decades must credit European conventions learned from John Ruskin, J. M.W. Turner, and a host of German landscapists who celebrated a highly romanticized, rather theatrical interpretation of the natural world.

Fresh from classes at the Düsseldorf Academy and painting excursions in the Bernese Alps, Bierstadt visited the West for the first time in 1859 with a U.S. government expedition searching for shortcuts along the Oregon Trail. The Wind River range of the central Rockies captured his attention, and he explored its awesome profile with the same romantic fascination that had made earlier painters interested in the Native Americans and the mountain men.

Like many artists of his day, Bierstadt was looking for scenes that would exemplify the burgeoning greatness of the relatively young American nation, and the Rockies provided a subject as grand as any the artist had witnessed in the Alps. In works such as Wind River Country (figure 20) he captured the western mountains as a metaphor for that dream of ascendant national stature. The Rockies and the Sierras were symbols of America's potential, and he exposed their force in the dynamic of his grand creative expression. But he also brought to these mountain scenes the conventions of European painting popular at the time. The theatrical, almost baroque compositions of snow-clad peaks and billowing clouds offset by exotic dramas being acted out on a stagelike foreground became a hallmark of Bierstadt's mature work.

In 1871, twelve years after Bierstadt first visited the central Rockies, Thomas Moran arrived in the upper Yellowstone Canyon region farther to the north, traveling with the legendary explorer and geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden. The beauty of the area inspired his greatest work -- paintings that, like Bierstadt's, conveyed a nationalistic message. Shortly after the Hayden expedition's return to the East the following year, Congress designated Yellowstone the world's first national park. Again, the western wilds became a symbol of America's Manifest Destiny, its intention to control through the exercises of exploration, art, and political mandate even the deepest, most impenetrable recesses of the continent.

The Yellowstone experience transformed the way in which Moran viewed nature and color. Never had he seen either so beautifully or provocatively presented. Fortunately, he was prepared for the task of translating those scenes into art. Moran's studies of the landscapes of the English artist J.M.W. Turner had readied him for handling the profusion of color, and John Ruskin had taught him to synthesize the manifold details of nature into an ideal beauty. Paintings such as Lower Palls of the Yellowstone (figure 98) illustrate the successful union of diverse art traditions and unique natural themes in producing powerful aesthetic and political statements of cultural and environmental determinism brilliantly wed. Moran's images were distributed widely in government reports and as popular prints.

At the close of his career, Bierstadt attempted to establish a bridge between western landscape and history painting. By the 1880s the landscape alone was insufficient for Bierstadt's grand expression: he wished to add the power of narrative to the equation. To that end, he produced in 1889 his famous Last of the Buffalo and multiple variations on the buffalo theme, such as Indians Hunting Buffalo (figure 106). With these works he turned from optimistic expressions of a spectacularly bountiful land to a provocative statement of finale. Here he introduced the metaphor of demise, the Rousseauian theme of an exotic, other world -- the West -- shrouded by the pale of fatalism, the extinction of native cultures and native species. By this time the West had been exploited to such an extent that Native Americans were reduced to captives barely surviving on reservations, while once-abundant animals had been hunted to the point of near extinction. The North American herds, once numbering in the tens of millions -- as seen in William Jacob Hays's monumental depiction The Stampede (figure 75) and the accompanying preliminary field sketch -- could now be counted in the low hundreds.


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