Molding our vision of the West

Painting: Albert Bierstadt's landscapes depict the mythical image of our frontier.

November 30, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

In the McNatt family photo album there is a picture of me as a little boy in cowboy hat and boots, toting a toy six-gun. Another shot shows me sitting on my mother's lap wearing a feathered headband and holding a bow and some arrows tipped with rubber suction cups.

This was the American West of my childhood, an image nurtured by 1950s television shows like "Gunsmoke" and "The Lone Ranger," in which the vast panorama of mountain and desert existed primarily to serve as the moral arena for the struggle between good and evil.

Of course, the American West of '50s-era TV bore little relation to historical reality. In fact, the West was always a dream more than a physical place, a huge symbolic canvas onto which the nation projected its ambitions, obsessions and fears. Which is why the paintings of Albert Bierstadt will always resonate in the national consciousness. He may not have invented the dream of the American West, but his pictures helped stamp its image indelibly in the minds of generations of Americans.

Bierstadt's dramatic Western landscapes made him one of the most famous American painters of the latter half of the 19th century. His large-scale view of Canada's Lake Louise, which for many years was part of Baltimore's historic Haussner family collection, will be among the featured works offered for sale tomorrow at Sotheby's auction house.

Sotheby's estimated the value of "Lake Louise" at between $700,000 and $900,000. But the price could go higher if competition develops among bidders. The Haussner painting is an excellent example of Bierstadt's late style, and comparable works rarely appear on the market.

Bierstadt was born in Germany in 1830 and immigrated to the United States two years later with his parents. He returned to Germany as a student in the mid-1850s, then made his first big success with a series of landscape paintings begun just before the Civil War, when he accompanied a mapping expedition of U.S. Army engineers from St. Louis to the Pacific Coast.

Bierstadt worked in the Romantic landscape tradition, and his early panoramic views like "The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak," completed in 1863, are visual representations of the idea of manifest destiny which propelled the nation's westward expansion after the Civil War.

In the late 1880s, Bierstadt was commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway to paint the dramatic mountain views along its line, which included Lake Louise and what is now Banff National Park.

Completed around 1890, Bierstadt's "Lake Louise" depicts a pristine expanse of water that gently recedes toward a background dominated by magnificent snow-covered mountains and a sky filled with billowing cumulus clouds.

Oddly, by the time Bierstadt painted "Lake Louise" his heroic vision of an unspoiled American West had already begun to fade, says Sona Johnston, curator of paintings before 1900 at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"The idea of this wonderful expanse of untouched nature, as opposed to the more domesticated European landscape, was inspired by the philosophical thinking of the period, but it didn't last forever," Johnston said.

"Americans started looking toward French models, like the Barbizon School, which explored smaller, more intimate corners of nature as opposed to the whole spectacle."

Still, Bierstadt's paintings were thrilling to people who had never seen such scenery, and the painter made the most of the romantic landscape tradition of clashing natural elements, stormy skies and cloud-shrouded mountain peaks.

Bierstadt's career invites comparison with 20th-century landscape photographer Ansel Adams, whose work probably has done more to popularize the Western landscape than any other artist in this century.

But where Bierstadt's pictures invited the conquest of nature, Adams' are a vision of nature as endangered species.

Adams, too, was a poet of the wilderness -- his photographs are nearly as untouched by civilization as Bierstadt's. But they also have a strange sadness, perhaps because they were taken after urbanization and industrialization already had begun to despoil the pristine landscape Bierstadt celebrated in paint.

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