Saturday, October 4, 2008

God's Glorious Might Painted by Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt, Sunset in Yosemite Valley, 1868

Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Rockies, 1886

I must confess that Albert Bierstadt is one of my supreme guilty pleasures. I go to the Brooklyn Museum, not to see their superb collection of Egyptian art, but to see Bierstadt's Storm in the Rockies, a painting where he pulls out all the stops. Yes, it's all operatic balderdash in the service of an agenda of conquest and exploitation, but it's just irresistable. It's great operatic balderdash. The very first art exhibition that I went to see was a big show of Bierstadt's paintings in the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth in 1972. We all got into the Ambassador station wagon and made a special trip down the DFW Turnpike just to see this show. We all loved it like we loved the movies. I still have the exhibition catalogue.
It's hard NOT to see the west through eyes conditioned by Bierstadt's paintings (or their near cousin, Ansel Adams' photographs). In our summer family excursions out west (that would always end in car trouble or illness), the happiest part was always watching a storm pass over the Rockies that would leave a dusting of brilliant fresh snow on the peaks. We actively sought out those Bierstadt moments, and we were frequently rewarded. The West really is spectacular.

What makes Bierstadt so enduringly popular is that more than any other artist, even Church, he expresses the terrible majesty of the wrathful God of American evangelical Christianity. He even does this better than the big Hollywood movie spectacles like "The Ten Commandments." All that radiant sunlight, soaring crags, and turbulent meteorology in his paintings is meant to convey the thrill and terror of God passing by Moses in all His splendor on Mt. Sinai.
Bierstadt was so popular that there is a mountain named after him in the Colorado Rockies, one of "The Fourteeners," those peaks over 14,000 feet (or 4000 meters).


Anonymous said...

I had nine summers and one winter in Santa Fe, and...well, you're very on the mark. It's all about "that moment". Folks who haven't witnessed them can't possibly understand, and yet, yes, photos like these yearn to let others in on the profundity.

Anonymous said...

btw, Georgia O'Keefe did a pretty special job of communicating these things. Her museum is spectacular. It almost does the trick for those who are lucky enough to see it. Almost.

Grandmère Mimi said...

Ah, Counterlight, Bierstadt's paintings are powerful, all right, but I don't feel them in my soul.

I can't help it, but I think of Cecil B. DeMille. Of course, DeMille is hokey, and Bierstadt is not, but the association is there,

Grandmère Mimi said...

And I really, really, really don't get Manifest Destiny. What hubris!

jj solari said...

i dont know why you'd call bierstadt a guity pleasure. he kicks ass. anyone who has a problem with the guy needs to be drowned in a sack. thank you. jj solari