Saturday, October 4, 2008

Manifest Destiny Made Manifest: Albert Bierstadt

Emigrants Crossing the Plains, 1867

Donner Lake from the Summit, 1867

Before I was so rudely interrupted by teaching and by politics, I was discussing art and the Westward expansion of the USA, especially for some insight into the American Particularism that so annoys and mystifies the rest of the world.
I'm discussing a few artists whose work expressed that religious and nationalist idea of Manifest Destiny, that not only had God specially chosen the United States and its people for a messianic purpose, He had given them their own Promised Land, predestined to them from Creation. We've already seen how artists like George Caleb Bingham likened American settlers to Israel of the Bible journeying through the wilderness. We've also seen the most successful and spectacular of landscape painters, Frederick Church deliberately call Biblical associations to mind as he painted natural prodigies like Niagara Falls and sunsets in the Catskill Mountains.
But the actual landscape of the West itself remained unpainted except for a few Hudson River School painters who went west as far as the Missouri River like Frederick Kensett. The Rockies and the Sierra Nevada remained unpainted and unseen by most of the American public of the mid 19th century.
Albert Bierstadt, born in Germany and raised in New Bedford, MA as the son of a barrel maker, saw the opportunity to make huge canvases, of the sort Church made, of the Western wilderness. He made 2 trips to the Rockies and to California in the 1850s and brought back wagons full of sketches. He kept a studio in the same building on Tenth Street in New York where Church worked, and there created huge 8 by 10 foot painted spectacles like the 2 reproduced above (sometimes these pictures could be as large as 10 feet by 16 feet).
More than any other artist, Bierstadt made explicit the parallel between the western settlement and Biblical Israel crossing over the Jordan. In the painting at the top, Bierstadt painted a sunset to rival Church beckoning a wagon train forward into the west like the Biblical pillars of fire and cloud leading Israel through the desert. They disappear into the misty radiance just beyond an idyllic (and doomed) Indian village.
Paintings like this proved to be immensely popular drawing in crowds who paid a nickel admission to see them. Businesses that were getting rich plowing through and ultimately destroying the western wilderness saw huge marketing opportunities in these paintings. The painting of Donner Lake Pass was commissioned by the Central Pacific Railroad Company. A senior vice president of the company, Colis Huntington traveled with Bierstadt to the pass to select the view that was to be painted. After many sketches and much work in the Tenth Street Studio in New York, the concoction above was produced. Donner Pass was a place that the American public of the day associated with disaster. Memories were still fresh of the fate of the Donner party which was stranded there by the lake during a disastrous crossing of the Sierras, snowed in, starving, and resorting to cannibalism. Putting a railroad across the pass was a major triumph of engineering won at great cost. Sheds were built over the rails to keep the tracks from being completely buried in the prodigious winter snows of the pass. Those sheds appear on the mountainside to the right in the painting. Bierstadt also added a stand of sequoias, the largest trees in the world, over on the left side of the picture to locate it in California and to make the whole thing even more prodigious. It is all bathed in the golden light of the dawn as though to pronounce a kind of triumphant benediction on the memories of all the grief and loss associated with the pass, the martyrs to chance and nature who made California accessible to the rest of us.
I've been to Donner Pass. I rode across it by train on the very railroad that you see in this picture. Yes, the general layout of the view back toward the east is largely as Bierstadt painted it, but he's inventing an awful lot. The snowsheds are still there over the tracks (now built out of steel reinforced concrete). But, there are no sequoias anywhere near this place. In fact, toward the top of the pass, the trees are very short and stunted by the ferocious winters. Campers and recreational boaters now swarm the shores of Donner Lake where the Donner party once starved. And if Bierstadt is to be believed, then this is as God intended.

1 comment:

jj solari said...

this is a pretty intense blog. i cant believe nobody comments on it. i'll be back. jj solari