Where the Past Met the Future
Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West
Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West
If I were to sum up the history of the art of the American West, I would say that it is the story of a race against time, a race of paint and ink, clay and bronze against progress and civilization, a nick of time thing that quickly ticks over into a too late thing before morphing at last into myth, nostalgia, fiction and sentimentality.and if I were to choose a single artist to stand on the fulcrum between the nick of time and too late, that artist might be Albert Bierstadt, whose early, dazzling panoramas, his “Great Pictures” celebrating the vast sweep of the American West, seem, in retrospect, to have been only the opening major chords in a long threnody lamenting a lost artists’ paradise.
Albert Bierstadt: witness to a Changing west, opening at the Center of the West before moving to the Gilcrease Museum, gives viewers a generous helping of the early Bierstadt, providing an important contrast that allows us to fully appreciate the later Bierstadt, the
artist whose star was falling somewhat as he aged, and whose subject was evaporating before his painter’s eyes. In an excellent essay introducing the exhibition, Dr. Peter Hassrick’s focuses on three of Bierstadt’s paintings that feature the buffalo: Buffalo Trail:
The Impending Storm, an 1869 painting that seems to be a response to the Transcontinental Railroad that bisected the great herds; Western Kansas, executed in 1876 for the American centennial; and Last of the Buffalo, one of a pair of monumental history paintings commissioned in 1888 and inspired in part by a visit to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in Staten Island, New York. In Buffalotrail: the Impending Storm and in Last of the Buffalo, the herds are imperiled—in the first by nature; in the second by Native hunters.the buffalo in Western Kansas, while not in any immediate danger, seem like something out of a picture postcard, out of a distant, unpeopled past. In all three works, as Hassrick points out, the animals move across a river, a Western avatar, perhaps, of the River Styx and the mythical crossing over from life to death. Extinction and elegy: in Bierstadt the magnificent American bison oscillate between these two states of being. Western Kansas, as Hassrick points out, “was the center of the western hide trade. In one year alone, 1873,” he writes “nearly a million hides were shipped from its railheads to the East to be used as the mechanical belts that drove insatiable American industry. ”the stitched circle of buffalo hide belt that drove the flywheels of the relentless engine of American progress echoes the frenetic cycle of the Industrial Revolution as people figured out how to use nature to subjugate nature, how to extract elements and energy from nature in order to further the taming of the natural world.
One way to look at the three buffalo paintings is to lay an imaginary compass over them, where north is up, south is down, west is left and east is right. In Buffalotrail: the Impending Storm, for example, the dark storm rolls in from the east, bringing the energy—and, soon after, the electricity—of waves of people, laws, fences, roads, artificial light and cities.
While Western Kansas and Buffalo Trail: the Impending Storm are not, unfortunately, part of the exhibition, an 1867 work, also called Buffalo Trail, contains the central idea—one you will see in many of his paintings of the period—that Bierstadt wants the buffalo appear to move from east to west, from life to afterlife as they ford the river, but because he also wants
the setting sun to illuminate them from behind as they move from light to darkness, the herd must actually be moving from west to east, into the teeth of a future that will use them until they very nearly vanish from the earth. Wherever the buffalo roam, Bierstadt seems to say, they roam toward doom. In Last of the Buffalo, the herd moves from light into the shadow of an enormous cloud. Sparing none of the carnage of an actual buffalo hunt, dying and dead buffalo—and the bones of their ancestors—litter the plains, while the remnant of the herd attempts to ford the river in a mad dash for an illusory sanctuary. One standing bull pierced with arrows turns on the Indians, staring them down with an anthropomorphic last stand heroism that is utterly futile. Elk and pronghorn antelope and a single fox are caught up in the wild hunt. Symbols of a different, deeper order of wildness, they may well be trampled or killed in the melee. In the central action, a large bull has lowered his head and gored the belly of a white horse—always a premonitory or apocalyptic creature.the Indian on the white horse has his spear raised to deal the death blow to the buffalo, but all three seem destined to meet their ends in the next few moments.and yet, this is a scene from an imagined past.the buffalo herd is tremendous, almost beyond number; the animals taken by the hunting party constitute a fraction of the total. By 1888, when Bierstadt painted Last of the Buffalo, the herds were thin and most of the tribes, especially the horsemen of the Plains, had been relegated to reservations.as Hassrick writes, Rocky Bear, a Sioux leader with Buffalo Bill’s troupe, took his people to see this magnificent painting when it—and they—were playing in Paris, so they might know “the glorious past of the redskin” and “the buffalo, when the Indian was master of all he could survey.”
It’s worthwhile recalling that the Civil War came at a devastating time for Bierstadt, just as his career was peaking.the internecine War Between the States was a savage, unromantic conflict that turned America’s attention away from the West. Bierstadt never quite recovered from it. After 1865, tastes—and, consequently, artists— turned toward Europe, toward genre painting and toward topographical painting as a prelude to expansion and exploitation of the West. Bierstadt’s idealized landscapes came under scrutiny and were criticized for being overly romantic.
There are a number of ways of looking at post-civil War and later Bierstadts.the first is that he was painting what he had seen, felt and lamented: the inevitable transformation of a landscape and an environment from wild and lightly peopled to a human-conquered, civilized, filled space. And so these are paintings of the past, a past even Bierstadt never truly saw. a second way of explaining the absence of railroads and market hunter slaughter—the absence of the presence of whites, in other words—is that, as the Indian and the buffalo become symbols of a lost, mythical balance, a natural spirituality, this—taking a cynical view—becomes the brand of the Western artist. I paint it, you are inspired to visit it, you see its potential, you exploit it, your profits from it buy my romantic paintings of how it used to be.yet
another cycle. Captains of industry and commerce were, after all, Bierstadt’s patrons, his bread and butter.to accuse them would be to bite the hand that fed him. Not too long after, by contrast, you see Native Americans responding directly to railroads, telegraphs and modernity in paintings by artists such as Henry Farny and Charles M. Russell. Another way to look at these works is to see them as advertisements, not for the rapacities of Manifest Destiny, but for their polar opposite—the newly nascent conservation movement in the United States, started by George Bird Grinnell, theodore Roosevelt and others. Bierstadt became a strong advocate of preservation in the West, and paintings like these encouraged the establishment of national parks and shed at least some light on the plight of Native Americans.
The history of the United States— in fact, the very idea of America—is inextricably tied to the abundance of the continent.
Striking a balance between extracting what we need—and what we think we need (an important distinction)—from the land, and appreciating and preserving that land that has given us so much is a crucial aspect of the American project and an ongoing struggle. american art has always played a part in this contentious dialogue and Bierstadt will forever remain one of the central players in it. From the afterlife of his own career Bierstadt painted the ghosts of his youth and imagination, and, like some beneficent version of Hamlet’s Ghost, helped to set powerful forces in motion that far outlived him. Bierstadt’s limned lamentations are part of the American impulse to preserve and bequeath a legacy of natural beauty.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Wind River Mountains, Nebraska Territory, 1862. Oil on board, 12 x 18½ in. Layton Art Collection, Inc. at the Milwaukee Art Museum, Milwaukee, WI. L1897.3. Photo by Larry Sanders.
William Jacob Hays Sr. (1830-1875), A Herd of Bison Crossing the Missouri River, 1863. Oil on canvas, 361⁄8 x 72 in. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Trust Fund Purchase. 3.60.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), The Last of the Buffalo, ca. 1888. Oil on canvas, 60¼ x 96½ in. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney Trust Fund Purchase. 2.60.
Left: Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), A Bull Buffalo, ca. 1878. Oil on paper, 13¼ x 15¼ in. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, Cody, WY. Gift of Carman H. Messmore. 1.62. Above: Napoleon Sarony (1821-1896), Portrait of Albert Bierstadt, ca. 1970....
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), View of Chimney Rock, Ogalillah Sioux Village in 1860. Oil on board, 13¼ x 193⁄8 in. Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, ME. Gift of the Honorable Roderic H.D. Henderson. 1964.026.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Buffalo Hunt, 1860. Oil on canvas, 33 x 44 in. Private Collection. Image courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery, Santa Fe, NM.