Vistas as Vast as the West
THE discovery and opening up of the Far West of the nascent United States took place in several stages; in its latter phases it was an extraordinarily quick process. We feel today that the world of the recent past is vanishing in a dense cloud of computers, black holes, and the like, and find it hard to believe that any other generation had so to endure the passing of landmarks. Yet, the first serious opening up of the Far West (about the time of the Civil War), the establishment of important geological surveys, the advent of the railway across the Great Plains, the relegation of the Indians to reservations, the near-extinction of the bison, and the immense migration of settlers, took only a few decades.
The early hunters, trappers, explorers, missionaries, and pioneering groups of settlers had had only a meager conception of what lay to the west, though they came to realize that it was a vast region. About 1857, the Union began seriously to consider the area, and after the war it was a marvelous boon to the wounded country that people could look westward and glimpse the wonders that awaited them all in that enormous, mysterious expanse.
To many it was then thought of as barren, ``filled with sagebrush and greasewood rattlers, kangaroo rats, and jack rabbits,'' an illusion that would be dispelled by the scientific explorers who journeyed there, and perhaps even more, on the popular front by the artists who accompanied them.
These men, intrepid travelers, painted glorious pictures of that magnificent, still untouched land - the Rockies, the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and the myriad peaks, ravines, rivers, lakes, and prairies, seeing them in an almost pristine state, arousing the deep interest of their contemporaries, and immortalizing them for future generations. Their canvases included Indians, adventurers, fortune hunters, cowboys - scenes that would become the stuff of legend, not only in the US, but all over the world.
Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Thomas Cole, Frederick Church, and a host of others, artists and horsemen, able to endure all sorts of dangers and difficulties, opened the way. It was said of Moran that he made Yellowstone and that Yellowstone made him.
Congress took bold and practical steps to open up the territory that would one day become the Western states. Between 1867 and '79, four geological surveys were set up under the leadership of gifted men, one of the first being the brilliant young geologist and writer, Clarence King; another was F.V. Hayden. All of them included artists among their members. The art of photography was hardly born at that time - the painter was essential.
Albert Bierstadt was well fitted to banish the myth of sagebrush and rattlesnakes. His beautiful large pictures of the marvelous scenery he encountered on his Western travels, his ability to convey a sense of its grand scale, were immediately recognized and greatly admired.
Born in D"usseldorf, Germany, in 1830, he was brought to America as an infant, his immigrant parents settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts. When he was 21, Bierstadt went back to the old family home, and spent five years studying art in the Rhineland and Westphalia, visiting the Alps and the Apennines, and painting everywhere.
A landscapist and a romantic, Bierstadt saw the world on a great panoramic scale - he was exactly the sort of man to paint the Far West. Returning to the states, he joined General Lander's expedition that was going west to establish a wagon road leading from Fort Laramee to the Pacific. It proved to be the first of many such journeys, and he developed a method of making quick oil sketches, watercolor impressions, or pencil drawings of the splendid spectacles afforded him, working them up later on his large canvases.
He met with success at every turn. Happily married, he built a fine house above the Hudson River at Tappan Zee, where he had an ideal studio overlooking the water, and he recorded the changing light and variation of colors. Bierstadt's work was highly prized, he was popular as an individual, and he knew eminent people on two continents, even staying with Queen Victoria at Osborne on the Isle of Wight. He had an innate sense of spectacle - his detractors thought him too dramatic, criticizing his work as scenery for the stage, and they sometimes called his colors hard. It was true, however, that no paintings could have been too dramatic for the views he caught - he saw nature at its grandest point - being a romantic, he quite simply took advantage of the wide, astonishing vistas.
``Island Lake, Wind River Range'' was painted in 1861, when he was with General Lander - it was his first trip to the West. He must have been almost overwhelmed with the beauty of the Wyoming terrain - almost, but not enough to stop him from capturing it for us.
It is a large picture glowing with golden-orange color in the background, this radiance brought forward to the stream that rushes by in the foreground, foaming, vivid. Otherwise the colors are somber or neutral, the lake silvery, the sky pale except at the zenith, the trees and rocks blackish green and dark brown, these tones forming a great contrast with the illumined hill and stream. It is a compelling work, evocative and romantic, a real tour de force. He had with him a camera and was making experiments with it, using the stereoscopic view, which no doubt did help him in the vast perspectives of his compositions.
Bierstadt went on painting into the next century, when his popularity waned as fashions changed, but he has endured. He now has an important niche in the roster of great American masters. Many of us really love his paintings, and receive from them a wide inspiration, a deep pleasure; undoubtedly his pictures contributed an important element to the building up of the country and its patriotism.