In 1861 Carleton Watkins took the definitive picture of Yosemite Valley from the aptly named Inspiration Point. The sheer granite wall of El Capitan, as sharp as if cut with a cleaver, fills one side of the photo. A rising tier of rock monoliths marches up the other, with a slender waterfall cascading off the side. If someone painted a picture of the scene, you wouldn't believe such a place could really exist.
When Albert Bierstadt saw the photo in a New York show he went West posthaste, traveling to California, then venturing up the coast to Washington. Bierstadt was one of the leading lights of the Hudson River School, a group of painters whose light-infused canvases celebrated the beauty of the natural world even as the 19th century's rush to industrialism was decimating that same landscape.
But it was the vast, still unspoiled wilderness of the American West that would propel Bierstadt to fame and fortune. His huge, histrionic canvases (especially of Yosemite) would fuse the grandeur of nature with his own fantasies — a perfect metaphor for America's Manifest Destiny.
"Bierstadt was the right artist for a historic time in America," notes Patricia Junker, a curator at the Seattle Art Museum, where a new show chronicles the artistic dimension of Western expansionism. "Beauty and Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration," features more than 100 paintings, photos and other artifacts. Many of the paintings are from private collections in the Pacific Northwest and have rarely been on public view.
"We are now here in the garden of Eden," Bierstadt wrote from Yosemite during the Civil War. "The most magnificent place I was ever in, and I employ every moment painting from nature.… [W]e get no news, and do not care for any for we are perfectly happy with fine scenery, trout, ducks, deer, etc."
The exhibition amounts to a pictorial road trip through America's scenic wonders: Frederic Edwin Church's small oil sketch of Niagara Falls, Thomas Moran's otherworldly depiction of the Grand Canyon, Sanford Gifford's lovely study of Mt. Rainier from Tacoma Bay, Bierstadt's serene vista of deer drinking from a river in Kings Canyon.
Scores of photos verify how grand the Western landscape actually was and, sadly, also document its destruction. One gallery features the large-format photos of Darius Kinsey, who, in the early 20th century, spent several years in the Pacific Northwest timber country as wholesale logging denuded entire mountainsides.
One heartbreaking black-and-white photo shows a huge cedar tree virtually chopped in half yet still standing upright. One logger sits in the middle of the undercut, while two others flank the tree. Axes stick out of its bark like the pikes at a bullfight. "Supposed to have been the largest tree in Washington," Kinsey wrote at the bottom of the picture.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the museum's "Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast," Bierstadt's overwrought rendering of a group of Indians pulling a boat to shore while waves explode on rocks and the heavens swirl in storm. Never a subtle painter, this is Bierstadt at his most bombastic. Though the artist traveled to Washington, he never reached Puget Sound. The gallery holding the picture also features model Indian canoes and ethnographic books that Bierstadt collected as fodder for his imagination.
"The fine points of the little-known Puget Sound landscape itself were less important to Americans in 1870," Junker writes, "than was the fantasized idea of Puget Sound — a storied inland sea that was a gateway to exotic-seeming points of the globe and lands of unknown people."
Bierstadt painted the picture in his New York studio seven years after his visit to Washington — just after the completion of the transcontinental railway, whose girdling of the nation is shown in many of the photos.
At the other end of the spectrum is William Keith's painting of the Nisqually Glacier on the flank of Mt. Rainier. Keith came to climb the 14,411-foot peak with his friend John Muir in 1888. While Muir reached the summit, Keith didn't make it any higher than 5,700 feet. But what he saw from there was still fantastic: a sea of ice, buckling and bending and erupting into incredible shapes. In the distance, 50 miles away, rose the snow-covered volcano of Mt. Adams. Wherever he painted the picture, Keith's impressionist-like brushwork contains a vibrancy and immediacy that Bierstadt's labored work never aspired to. And, once again, nature outdid fantasy.