New York

Albert Bierstadt

Florence Lewiston Gallery

The small oil sketches of Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) are of special interest in just this connection. Like Church, Bierstadt is of course best known for his big “machines,” landscapes done in the highly finished, meticulous Dusseldorf manner. There is no doubt that Bierstadt, like Church, wanted to maintain landscape at the level of dignity that had previously been associated with history painting, and it is import ant to realize that for him, as for Church, landscape—as a vehicle for the highest kind of dignity—was not considered as a pis-aller, an ultimately unsatisfactory substitute for the real thing (i.e., the mythological or Biblical scenes of traditional history painting), it was rather an equivalent of it: the image might differ, but the seriousness and nobility were the same. And so, while Bierstadt did paint such works as The Last of the Buffalo or The Discovery of the Hudson River, projecting onto big canvases the kind of dramatized landscape that had been standard since the time of Claude, pure landscape is for him an entirely admissible mode. In my opinion, he goes even further than Church in claiming for it the highest place in art, because Church, as I have said, could imagine landscape as noble only when it was exotic or ideal. Bierstadt, even in his big machines, saw in landscape the highest greatness even when the landscape was—for the most part—simply what his eye saw, apart from literature, religiosity, or indeed any ideal; for him, it was principally a scene. Of course, in the last analysis it was not solely what he perceived; Bierstadt was still too close both to the ideal of grandeur of a social order he never knew and to the religious or quasi-religious attitudes that were in one way or another associated with it; and certainly he could not have been insensitive to the vast current of nationalism that gave such impetus to landscape over here, as in Europe it had encouraged a concern with the great exploits of the national past. But I suspect that the experience of the frontier must have been too strong for any established ideology to withstand.

Jerrold Lanes