FRANCONIA, N.H. — Did it matter, really, that Albert Bierstadt’s rapturous 19th-century visions of the American west were far, far too good to be true? It depends how much truth mattered back then, in a country shattered by Civil War and looking westward for fresh starts. Bierstadt, with his otherworldly mountain vistas swimming in beatific light, may not have painted the American west as it was. But he surely painted the American west as America needed it to be.
Such license, in fact, was a feature of Bierstadt’s work almost from the start. As I traversed the parking lot at the northern end of Echo Lake in New Hampshire’s Franconia Notch, I could see the vista Bierstadt captured in his 1861 work “Echo Lake, Franconia Mountains, New Hampshire,” though barely. (For all his westward ho-ing, Bierstadt was a New Englander through and through). It wasn’t just the thrum of I-93 along the lake’s eastern shore or the remaining smears of snow on Cannon Mountain, the ski resort that looms above, that distracted my eye. The mountains aren’t nearly as bulky and compressed as Bierstadt painted, and the proportions are way off. As for the light: Really? The over-the-top combination of thunderheads, shafts of sunlight, and mist dancing across the lake’s surface is shameless, an improbable conflation of phenomena less beautiful than surreal.
You get the idea: Bierstadt’s selective reality tilted toward the dramatic, the heroic, the overblown. Nuance and subtlety were not his things. And in the aftermath of cataclysmic division, those theatrics gave his American audience something they needed (or at least something they would pay for: Bierstadt’s showman-like entrepreneurship had him gussying up purpose-built viewing rooms for single paintings). All this, surely, came to obscure his talents, which were not minor, at least as a maker of uncomplicated pictures with crowd-pleasing in mind. At his height in the 1870s and ’80s, Bierstadt might have been the most popular painter in America; by the time he died, in 1902, he was a virtual unknown, made obsolete by Modernism’s merciless advance.
What other stories did so dedicated a fabulist have to tell, you might wonder, and why? That depends on whose version of history you choose to believe. What we do know is that, as Bierstadt’s industry was expanding, the west was being won, as they say. Native Americans were being slaughtered or removed from their lands and shunted off to tiny reservations, while their ancestral lands were being portioned out to European settlers by the federal government.
Bierstadt’s pictures were more than gaudy, pretty things. Manifest Destiny, the uniquely American belief that God bestowed upon white settlers the right to take whatever was needed from whomever might have it, burns at their core. There are those who will argue this point to the ends of the earth — my inbox, inevitably, will receive hate mail — but can we really look at a painting like “Emigrants Crossing the Plains,” from 1867, as anything but absolution by divine providence for the genocidal horrors happening at the very same moment? The painting features a settler wagon train loping into a distant, holy-looking glow. It’s been described as Bierstadt’s very explicit version of the biblical tale of the Israelites crossing the Jordan to the promised land. I’m not the first to call Bierstadt’s western paintings “pro-colonialist propaganda” — borrowed here from Kirsten Wesselow, writing in Montreal-based Graphite Publications — but I couldn’t put it better myself.
Bierstadt’s view of westward expansion makes him a ready target for contemporary artists. Kent Monkman, a Cree artist from Canada, based an entire phase of his expanding career on Bierstadt’s shimmering mountainscapes. Monkman, who had a pair of monumental paintings installed in the Great Hall of the Metropolitan Museum this year, remade Bierstadt’s landscapes and peopled them with fantastical Native American cross-dressers, underscoring the camp fantasy of Bierstadt’s selective vision. (Monkman’s “History Is Painted By the Victors,” from 2013, has to be seen next to Bierstadt’s “Among the Sierra Nevada, California” to appreciate how thorough and dedicated a takedown it is.) Kay Walkingstick, a Cherokee painter, makes a practice of reclaiming on canvas the vast western vistas captured by Bierstadt as though they were stolen property (which, to be fair, is just the truth).
Last year, the Peabody Essex Museum hosted “Nature’s Nation: Art and the Environment,” an exhibition of works centered on the idea of American nationhood and its ties to the land. The show was smart, knowing that any exhibition linking land to identity is inherently about competing visions of sovereignty. And there was Bierstadt, flanked by Monkman on one side, and on the other by Valerie Hegarty’s “Fallen Bierstadt,” a replica of “Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite,” from 1871, torched and dripping melted shards of paint on the floor. As the show opened, Peabody Essex also started work on a research project with a title that says it all: “What happened there? Finding Native American history in 19th-century landscape paintings of the White Mountains.” The White Mountains hosted a gamut of famous painters, from Thomas Cole to George Inness. And, of course, Bierstadt.
Does he deserve the kicking around? I think so. Bierstadt’s sin was also the country’s: A complex tale, far too simply told.
Born in what is now Germany in 1830, he moved to New Bedford with his family when he was 2 years old. In 1853, he returned to Europe to study art at the Dusseldorf school of painting, where the Romantic tradition of straight-edged Neoclassicism reigned. Bierstadt spent years honing his technique in the alps of Switzerland, Italy, and France. When he returned to New Bedford, in 1857, there was no one in America who could paint a mountain quite like him. And he knew it.
Bierstadt had a “near-perfect combination of technical expertise, European experience, national enthusiasm and marketing savvy — everything required to turn the Western landscape into an iconic image of national definition,” wrote the art historian Nancy K. Anderson in an essay for a 1991 retrospective exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. (In a review of the show, The New York Times, more succinctly, credited Bierstadt with a new genre: “the opportunistic sublime.”)
In 1859, when the government invited artists to join its expedition to map the westward Overland Trail, Bierstadt, with his alpine portfolio, was a natural. He came back to his New York studio in 1860 with armloads of sketchbooks — of landscapes, and of indigenous peoples who would come to populate his images in long-lens portraits of the vanquished. There will always be Bierstadt enthusiasts eager to point out what they see as his many sympathetic pictures of Native Americans. Whether this was emotionally resonant sympathy or simply more crowd-pleasing is anyone’s guess. (Mine would be the latter, since I’ve never detected a note of emotional authenticity from a single Bierstadt painting.) But the story of Native Americans defeated and shuffled to the margins is as core to the tale of Manifest Destiny as the land itself. Let us not forget the Trail of Tears, in which 60,000 Native Americans were forced from their ancestral homelands in the Southeast between 1830 and 1850, during Bierstadt’s formative New Bedford years.
In Europe, Bierstadt had learned not only technique. He had absorbed the ideals of European Romanticism, which valued nature, above all else, in the face of a rapidly-industrializing world. Romantic ideals were absolute truth and beauty, which were found in nature; and in North America, they were found, in their patronizing way, in Native Americans, who were seen as untouched by the complications of urbanity — the proverbial noble savages, the last vestiges of humanity at its most naive.
In other words, painting Native Americans, especially at an end-of-days dead end, may have been as good for business as Bierstadt’s apparently conscientious observation. In our thankfully woke era, Bierstadt is a figure under serious reconsideration. But in the west, he remains for many a figure of uncomplicated reverence (and I’m from the west, hate-mailers, so think before you press send).
In New Hampshire, I felt a tiny spark of revelation and justification both. Looking up across tiny Echo Lake, painted only a year after Bierstadt’s first western foray, I saw nothing of the grandiose puffery captured on canvas. In New Hampshire, Bierstadt’s slate had been brutally wiped clean almost a century before — by settler-borne disease, war, and famine. Indigenous peoples there saw their numbers decline by 90 percent by the time of the American Revolution. In 1861 Bierstadt saw his opportunity clearly: To paint a vision that confirmed for a nation’s eyes what it wanted to believe in its heart. That would take practice, a predictable formula, to get right. At Echo Lake, I felt as though I was standing in an architectural model for the edifice of renown Bierstadt would later build, a rehearsal for the main event. And what a show it turned out to be.