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Art and adventure in nineteenth-century California.

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)





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)


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. Like Hill, William Keith was intimately familiar with Yosemite, having spent a great deal of time camping there with his close friend John Muir. His landscapes of the late 1860s and 1870s are filled with color and, often, small figures who occupy the foreground as either observers or workers of the land.

Just as Keith's Haying in Marin County shows an industrious landscape of peace and plenty, so did wilderness paintings of the era reveal the artist and tourist as partners in the enterprise of producing and appreciating culture. (6) As California painting became less about representing a nation and more about the specifics of place, the small figures that populate works by Keith, Hill, Williams, and others not only provided scale and aesthetic interest, but also advocated exploration of nature firsthand. This self-conscious identification between artist and audience reinforced the latter's capacity to appreciate the scenery and to compose individual experiences of landscape along picturesque lines.

In 1874, the San Francisco genre painter William Hahn captured not the landscape but this very act in Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point. Indeed, his focus is not on nature--painted in uninteresting grays and sprouting a dead tree--but on the task of seeing something extraordinary within it. As tourists squint through binoculars and point at something out of the viewer's sight, they are shown actively composing a mental image of Yosemite, their labor emphasized in the distance between Hahn's dullish landscape and the more picturesque expectations we can assume the visitors to have. As others are wholly disengaged from the vista, such as the man asleep under his horse or the women who turn their backs on the overlook, we can presume further that this task already has become mundane.

Hahn was a genre, not a landscape, painter, and it was his job to create engaging narratives out of gesture and action. As American painting of this era struggled to free itself from European influence, artists turned their eyes West, seeking, like Hahn, to paint not just landscape but its experiential component. Within genre painting, the legendary horsemanship and aristocratic appearance of California's dwindling ranchero society contributed to an experience of Old World flair. James Walker, who had witnessed the Mexican-American War (1846-48) and was known for military paintings that exuded both order and action, embarked on a series of vaquero paintings in the 1870s for which he is best remembered. Among these, Roping the Bear, Santa Margarita Rancho of Juan Forster is a tightly controlled drama that freezes the exuberant display of Hispanic horsemanship within.




Such preservative measures--of capturing and crystallizing an image of the West in the final decades of the nineteenth century--increased artistic fascination with California as a state of adventure, where getting there was half the fun. Hahn's Snowstorm in the Sierras confirmed tales of drama and adventure associated with western travel, especially at a time when the final descent into Yosemite Valley was still made by stage. Unlike Hill's earlier, melodramatic painting The Miner's Children, Snowstorm in the Sierras was intended as a vicarious travel guide for the exciting experience one could hope to have--or not--on a western excursion.

As the connection between painting and travel increased, so did the use of art to narrate both expectations and experience. This linkage of the visual and the verbal was hardly new in American art. Since the early nineteenth century, painters such as Thomas Cole and his close friend the poet William Cullen Bryant served together as enlightened wilderness guides for their cultivated audience. By the 1870s, the travel narrative had become a flourishing literary genre to which first-rate scientists and middle-class travelers alike contributed. Written by men and women, they offered both practical advice and aesthetic guidance. (7)

Whereas landscape paintings offered a model for visualizing scenery along guidelines established by artists, travel narratives often were composed as a rhetorical search for the natural landscape and thus were underwritten by a tone of moral edification. John Ruskin, the British critic whose writings dictated how Americans viewed nature for much of the nineteenth century, spoke of "education by landscape"--promoting the intellectual and moral benefits of travel by presenting a geological basis for the picturesque. A merger of science with art, Ruskin's emphasis on antiquity provided part of the intellectual foundation for the preservationist impulse essential to Yosemite's formation, underscoring the contrast between the "beautiful past and the frightful and monotonous present." (8)

Ruskin's American contemporaries, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, wrote at length of their searches for art in nature. Emerson in particular wrote of "hunting of the picturesque," advising his readers that artists were useful guides in this endeavor: "Go out to walk with a painter, and you shall see for the first time groups, colors, clouds, and keepings, and shall have the pleasure of discovering resources in a hitherto barren ground, of finding as good as a new sense in such skill to use an old one." (9)

This notion of the artist serving as an aesthetic attendant to a wilderness adventure would come to figure heavily in California painting. Through a combination of technical skill and creative license, artists helped viewers comprehend the pastoral qualities of landscapes, functioning as guides not only to place but to changing tastes in American art.

The idea that the West was unseen until the artist, explorer, or artist-as-explorer revealed it to a waiting audience had framed the Western experience as a visual adventure--from George Catlin's paintings of his daring exploits among the Blackfeet Indians to Alfred Jacob Miller's depictions of a Western landscape filled with the rosy light of a new dawn. (10) When Bierstadt arrived in Yosemite for the second time in 1872, then, it is not surprising that landscape painters were creating visual interpretations that, though based on his influence, were nevertheless moving in new directions.




But perhaps the most profound effect of Bierstadt's California presence and work was not on the landscape but on his own life and career. Within a decade, the once-popular artist had begun a long critical and financial downhill slide. While he was unwilling to make major changes to his sensational style, the landscape was unwilling to conform to it, and as the discrepancy between the two widened, it created a chasm of opportunity for artists more adventuresome in terms of style and content--such as William Keith, Thomas Hill, James Walker, and William Hahn who aroused and met the expectations of California as a place apart.


(1) Cited in Lee Clark Mitchell, Westerns: Making the Man in Fiction and Film (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996), 56.

(2) Stephen James Sedgwick, Announcement of Professor J. Sedgwick's Illustrated Coarse of Lectures and Catalogues of Stereoscopic Views of Scenery, in An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820-1920, Anne Farrar Hyde (New York and London: New York University Press), 110.

(3) Boston Transcript, Nov. 13, 1869, cited in Nancy Anderson, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), 208, the most comprehensive study of Bierstadt and his impact on Western landscape painting.

(4) While Bierstadt's position in the canon of American landscape painting has been made clear, Thomas Hill and William Keith are typically treated in the literature as more regional figures. See Janice Driesbach, Direct from Nature: The Oil Sketches of Thomas Hill (Yosemite National Park, CA: Yosemite Association, 1997), and Brother Cornelius, Keith: Old Master of California (New York: Putnam, 1942-56). James Walker, William Hahn, and other artists discussed here are primarily genre figures who appear in reference works. Of these, Edan Hughes's Artists in California: 1786-1940 (San Francisco: Hughes Publishing Co., 1986) is among the most comprehensive.

(5) "Art Jottings," California Mail Bag 7 (June 1875): 116-17.

(6) For further reading on the intersection of landscape art, Western travel, and national identity, see Barbara Novak, Nature and Culture: American Landscape and Painting, 1825-1875 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Anne Farrar Hyde, An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820-1920 (New York and London, 1990); and William H. Truettner, ed., West as America: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991).

(7) Travel guides were abundant in the late nineteenth century, offering both practical advice to tourists and romantic descriptions and images of natural wonders. See George Crofutt, Crofutt's New Overland Tourist and Pacific Coast Guide (Omaha, NE: Overland Publishing Company, 1883), and Sterling M. Holdredge, State, Territorial, and Ocean Guidebook of the Pacific (San Francisco: Francis, Valentine & Co., 1865).

(8) E. T. Cook and A. Wedderburn, eds., The Works of John Ruskin (Library Edition), 39 vols. (London: George Allen, 1912), cited in John Dixon Hunt, "Ut Pictura Poesis, the Picturesque, and John Ruskin," Comparative Literature 93, no. 5 (Dec. 1978): 800.

(9) Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, eds., Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 10 vols. (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1910), cited in William D. Templeton, "Thoreau, Moralist of the Picturesque," Modern Language Association 47, no. 3 (Sept. 1932): 868.

(10) For further reading see Lisa Strong, Sentimental Journey: The Art of Alfred Jacob Miller (Fort Worth, TX: Amon Carter Museum, 2008), and Brian Dippie, George Catlin and His Indian Gallery (Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2002).

AMY SCOTT is Marilyn B. and Calvin B. Gross Curator of Visual Arts at the Autry National Center, where she has organized numerous exhibitions, including "Drawn to Yellowstone: Artists in America's First National Park" (2004-5) and "Yosemite: Art of an American Icon" (2006-7). She was editor of the latter exhibition's accompanying book, published with the University of California Press (2006). She received a bachelor's degree in art history from the University of Kansas and a master's degree in art history from the University of Missouri in Kansas City, where she worked as a curatorial assistant at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. She is currently working on her doctorate at the University of California, Irvine. Many of the paintings referenced in this article were prominently featured in the Autry exhibition "California Style: Art and Fashion from the California Historical Society" (2007) and regularly grace the Autry's galleries.
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Title Annotation:COLLECTIONS
Author:Scott, Amy
Publication:California History
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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