In the Mountains, Albert Bierstadt
In the Mountains, painted by Albert Bierstadt in 1867 is a staggering vision of the American landscape as an idyll unspoiled by human hands, yet seeming to exist only in the imagination of the artist and, by extension, the viewer. Painted following Bierstadt’s journey to Europe to promote his works and secure fresh commissions, the rock formation depicted is modeled on the El Capitan granite cliff in the Yosemite national park. Aside from the artist’s idiosyncratic powers as an entrepreneur and self-promoter, contemporary audiences were also deeply impressed by Bierstadt’s ability to fuse a number of different elements into one awe-inspiring vista. Bierstadt has left an indelible mark on American visual culture, being one of the first to depict the wild lands of the Western frontier, having joined a number of pioneer conquests of the lands on the west coast. The artist was a prominent member of the Hudson River School, a loose group of painters who forged dramatic reproductions of imagined vistas, all bathed in radiant light, and all appearing uninhabited and untouched. His representation of the new lands rapidly coming under United States jurisdiction helped to consolidate a popular image of the wild west that would later manifest itself most notably in the film genre of the Western.
Although the subject of derision in many artistic circles, Bierstadt’s career, and craft represented the apex of a broad and wide-reaching transcendentalism expressed in American literature and painting of the 1860s. For Bierstadt, the Yosemite Valley was the Biblical Garden of Eden, the site of divine revelation, and for his society, it was their manifest destiny to own the lands of the western frontier. A divisive figure, the same qualities are seized upon to criticize his works as to praise them. Many would argue that he both painted and consolidated the prevailing mood that allowed the ravages and dispossession of Native American lands. But however you take Bierstadt, he was a tremendous businessman and became one of the most wealthy and commercially successful artists of his or any other age.
In the Mountains was painted at a time when the artist must have been acutely aware of his own success. Having just returned from Europe, Bierstadt had enjoyed an audience with Queen Victoria and a rapturous welcome from the British art press. A quintessential artist of empire and expansion, Bierstadt’s visions were nonetheless transcendental and epiphanic achievements.