Art and Adventure in Nineteenth-Century California

By Scott, Amy | California History, September 2009 | Go to article overview

Art and Adventure in Nineteenth-Century California


Scott, Amy, California History


It's all Bierstadt and Bierstadt and Bierstadt nowadays! What has he done but twist and skew and distort and discolor and belittle and be pretty this whole doggoned country? Why, his mountains are too high and too slim, they'd blow over in one of our fall winds.... I've herded colts two summers in Yosemite and honest now when I stood right in front of his picture, I didn't know it.

--Hank G. Smith, artist (1870) (1)

By the late 1860s, Americans had clear expectations of the Western landscape. Along with railroad publicity and a growing industry of travel literature, artists trans ported their audience to a Far West of "distant wilds, to terrific heights, translucent lakes, and natural scenes of ... peerless sublimity." (2) When the celebrated landscape painter Albert Bierstadt arrived in Yosemite in 1872, therefore, he found a vista that was, in many ways, the product of his own design. Indeed, his one previous visit, in 1863, had been closely watched, thanks in part to his traveling companions, which included the recognized journalist Fitz Hugh Ludlow and the artist Virgil Williams, whose painting Along the Mariposa Trail shows the party camped beneath a towering granite cliff, artists' tools nearby.

This staking of artistic claim to Yosemite was important, especially during the ensuing and intense public debate over his use of imagination in the resulting depictions of the landscape. Filled with thundering waterfalls and atmospheric drama, and exhibited primarily in the East, the paintings were described as "too beautiful for reality" (3) but still of powerful interest. For Bierstadt, the imaginative potential of the landscape became the raw materials of art.

While the artists who followed Bierstadt into Yosemite Valley in the 1870s moved away from the overstated theatrics of their predecessor, they did little to contradict his vision of California as an ideal landscape, a version of nature that was better somehow than that which actually existed. Just as Bierstadt had envisioned, wilderness continued to function as a refuge, a sanctuary, a destination not just for the spiritually enraptured nature writer or the acquisitive industrial entrepreneur but for an ever wider swath of the public.

Whereas Bierstadt's primary audience had been armchair travelers, increased prosperity and leisure came together in the 1870s--following completion of the transcontinental railroad--to bring California in its entirety within the grasp of an expanding array of visitors eager for the visual and romantic engagement promised by its natural wonders. The burgeoning travel industry meant a busy market for paintings that attested to this new and more intimate encounter with nature, and local artists responded accordingly. Among them were Thomas Hill and William Keith, part of a younger generation of artists that rendered the California landscape as one mediated as much by pre-existing aesthetic conventions as by individual experience. (4)

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Indeed, substitute a brush for the rod in Thomas Hill, Jr. Fishing and it is easy to imagine the boy as a portrait of the artist himself. Hill would build a studio in the Yosemite Valley in 1883, joining several painters and photographers in residence each summer. And although their work continued to emphasize solitude and secession from the everyday world, these artists were frequent collaborators. Bierstadt and Eadweard Muybridge worked together in 1872; Hill was criticized for creating landscapes too similar to views by Carleton Watkins. (5)

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If Bierstadt's presence in his paintings of the 1860s can be likened to that of a conductor orchestrating effects from a hidden vantage point, his successors more overtly positioned themselves as participants in the landscapes that sprang from their easels. …

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