Where the Past Met the Fu­ture

Al­bert Bier­stadt: Wit­ness to a Chang­ing West at the Buf­falo Bill Cen­ter of the West

American Fine Art Magazine - - In This Issue - by James D. Balestri­eri

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....

the Fore­ground,

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.