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Thomas Moran

Manifest Destiny, in art

Manifest Destiny, in art

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...