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West of Eden

ALBERT Bierstadt (1830-1902) is best known as a painter of mountain scenery. Although he grew up in Massachusetts, studied art in Germany, and lived most of his adult life in New York City, his specialty was the virgin grandeur of the American Far West. Bierstadt traveled to California and the Rocky Mountain states and made careful sketches. Later, at home in his studio, he elaborated them into the panoramic landscape paintings that won him prizes in Europe as well as America.

``View of Donner Lake, California'' (ca. 1871) is an oil sketch he executed for a painting commissioned by the railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington. To a modern taste it has a touch of spontaneity that can be more attractive than the precise finish demanded by 19th-century art patrons. It was recently given to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, where it provides a striking contrast with the more typical Bierstadt paintings in the collection.

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For 19th-century landscape painters and their public alike, America was a new Garden of Eden, where nothing very bad had ever happened or was likely to happen. Europe was different, of course. The enormously popular 17th-century Italian painter Salvator Rosa depicted a landscape in which any man was likely to be a bandit and any house was likely to be in ruins. Generations of artists went to Rome and painted the ruins of the capital and the surrounding countryside. That was the Old World.

The American landscape, by contrast, was depicted as a place without history. The businessmen who bought those paintings could see their new country as rich and ripe for exploitation; others could see it as a place without sin. Often enough the two opinions existed side by side.

Bierstadt's view of Donner Lake is very different in mood. Here there is nothing of the Edenic. The rocky foreground makes the valley more forbidding than inviting. At the summit of a dark outcropping of rock there is a black cross, arguably a reminder of one of the most tragic episodes in the history of California.

While it happens to be true that Collis P. Huntington owned a railroad that passes near Donner Lake, it is probably more significant that from November 1846 to April 1847 the Donner party was snowbound near this spot. Here was one place in which it could not be imagined that America was and always would be a new Eden. As the historian Kevin Starr has noted, the fate of the Donner party quickly came to symbolize the dark side of the California dream.

Taken as a whole, however, the painting offers us hope. Bierstadt has used the glowing sun -- shown directly in the upper left corner, and then reflected in the lake below -- to suggest a spiritual presence.

This use of the sun and the evocative power of light was common among such German romantic painters as Caspar David Friedrich, whose work Bierstadt may have known. In the 20th century this theme was revived by Max Ernst, who painted many a Friedrich sun bringing warmth to a haunted forest.

If Bierstadt's Donner Lake is not an Arcadia without history, it does suggest that we can transcend misfortune. The tree at left appears far taller than the dark rocks and the cross below. Its branches, green with young leaves, reach out to the rising sun.

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