From the Collection: Albert Bierstadt’s Wind River Mountains, Nebraska Territory

A number of the artists featured in the special exhibition Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School can also be found in the galleries of the Milwaukee Art Museum. This is the second in a series of blog posts that will highlight Milwaukee’s artworks during the run of the exhibition.

Albert Bierstadt (American, b. Germany, 1830–1902), Wind River Mountains, Nebraska Territory, 1862. Oil on board. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, Inc., Purchase L1897.3. Photo credit: Larry Sanders.

Albert Bierstadt (American, b. Germany, 1830–1902), Wind River Mountains, Nebraska Territory, 1862. Oil on board. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, Inc., Purchase L1897.3. Photo credit: Larry Sanders.

The special exhibition Nature and the American Vision looks at the paintings of the Hudson River School. This week, let’s take a closer look at one of the paintings by this group of artists on view in the American galleries and see how it relates to scientific study.

Today we see science and art as two separate forms of study, but for much of history, they were intertwined. The painters of the Hudson River School worked during the nineteenth century, when science and the humanities had more fluidity.

Take, for instance, a painting in the Layton Art Collection by Albert Bierstadt (American, b. Germany, 1830–1902): Wind River Mountains, Nebraska Territory.

Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Prussia, in present-day central-west Germany. His family immigrated to America when he was an infant, but he eventually returned to Germany and studied at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art. In 1859, Bierstadt joined the Lander Expedition, a government-funded survey to route the transcontinental railroad, and he documented the west in drawings and small-scale oil sketches. Then, when he returned to his studio in New York, he turned his studies into captivating full-scale oil paintings like Wind River Mountains.

John White (American, b. Britain, active 1585–1593), The Town of Secoton, 1585. The British Museum 1906,0509.1.7. © Trustees of the British Museum.

John White (American, b. Britain, active 1585–1593), The Town of Secoton, 1585. The British Museum 1906,0509.1.7. © Trustees of the British Museum.

At first glance, it might seem unnecessary to have an artist on your expedition team. With more pressing concerns such as extreme weather and food rations, an artist’s talents don’t immediately seem essential. Yet, artists played important roles in these expeditions, documenting the region’s cultures, customs, and terrain for future records. Their sketches and paintings were vital to scientific study.

Look at an example, at right, of such a sketch from 1585 by John White (American, b. Britain, active 1585–1593). In this drawing of the Native American town of Secoton, in present-day North Carolina, White documented the activities and structures that he saw when in the New World. White focused on specific details and labeled everything so that later historians could study the Americas through his art.

Similarly, paintings like Bierstadt’s Wind River Mountains are documents from the Lander Expedition. The artist depicted the Native American encampment in the Nebraska Territory with scientific accuracy, and even showed a tree burial in the far right of the painting. But compare this canvas to the work by White, and it is clear that Bierstadt had more than science in mind.

Bierstadt, in fact, created a picturesque and romantic scene; in the distance the mountains are painted in purple and fade gently into the sky. Meanwhile, the artist placed his figures in the middle ground, drawing the viewer’s eye to them by casting the camp in a golden glow. His native subjects are not depicted with the same stark precision as White’s.

Albert Bierstadt (American, b. Germany, 1830–1902), Wind River Mountains, Nebraska Territory, 1862. Oil on board. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, Inc., Purchase L1897.3. Photo credit: Larry Sanders.

Albert Bierstadt (American, b. Germany, 1830–1902), Wind River Mountains, Nebraska Territory, 1862. Oil on board. Milwaukee Art Museum, Layton Art Collection, Inc., Purchase L1897.3. Photo credit: Larry Sanders.

Bierstadt’s figures blend into the landscape with only a suggestion of form, and the artist bathed them in a golden light that only heightens their idealization. The overall feeling is one of peace and calm. Bierstadt’s use of atmospheric perspective, the softness of the image, and only the subtle hints of detail perhaps imply the fading of the particulars from his own memory.

Bierstadt, like many during the nineteenth century, believed that America’s indigenous population and their customs were quickly disappearing as a result of the nation’s westward expansion. In Wind River Mountains, Bierstadt tried to convey a moment in their history. His accuracy of depicting the scene allows for further study, while his artistic style creates an emotional response that allows viewers the same awe that Bierstadt experienced when first sketching the region years before.

–Kelsey Rozema, Curatorial Intern

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