Painted in 1871, Kern's River Valley, California, these three horses and two riders taking their ease in an awe-inspiring landscape is the kind of work that made Bierstadt one of the most celebrated painters of his time. One of the few artists to travel to the frontier, his visions of the West's majesty were some of the first glimpses into the pristine wilderness seen by an American public.
Influenced by JMW Turner, Thomas Cole brought to the U.S. a sense of the sublime, or fearsome nature, and established the Hudson River School of painters. Not really a school, but rather a group of like-minded artists, this movement's hallmarks were carefully painted details bathed in a romantic glowing light, usually on a theatrically large scale. Cole's student, Frederic Church, and Albert Bierstadt are “second generation” Hudson River School painters—learning from Cole, but moving away from the Eastern seaboard.
Albert Bierstadt grew up in the U.S. and returned to his native Germany to gain technical proficiency by working with students from the Dusseldorf art school—he had applied as a student himself but was not accepted. He returned to New York, exhibited a Swiss landscape he had painted while in Europe, to wide acclaim. Fellow artist Frederic Church traveled to the Arctic and the Andes; Bierstadt went West. He traveled with a government survey expedition to document the frontier and returned to New York with stacks of sketches. He produced many paintings based on those sketches, including the monumental six-feet-by-ten-feet Rocky Mountain, Lander's Peak. The painting was displayed in New York City's Metropolitan Fair in 1864, where paintings of this size were displayed as one-painting exhibitions, framed by heavy drapery and lit to impress. These single-picture pay-per-view traveling attractions drew thousands of visitors in cities across the U.S.
The scale of many of Bierstadt's works, including the three feet by almost six feet Kern's River Valley, were inspired by the vastness of the West. Bierstadt sets up the composition in Kern's River Valley with great restraint--a few tiny figures, trees reflected in the wide turquoise river against a background of “purple mountains majesty,” the peaks disappearing into a luminescent haze. The river occupies the lower third of the canvas, the river bank contrasting lavender mountains in a lush yellow-green. Trees frame the painting, the shadow of the tree closest the viewer and the receding forest create depth. The tiny figures, two horses with a rider, and another horse with a dismounted rider further off illustrate the shocking scale of the Western landscape. Bierstadt celebrates this grand scale again and again, for example in Valley of the Yosemite 1864 and Among The Sierra Nevada Mountains California.
The incredible beauty of this Sierra Nevada landscape arrests riders and viewers alike. Bierstadt depicts the river from a high vantage point, increasing the perception of the Sierra Nevada's rugged verticality, embraced by a delicate light. As it moves towards the foreground, the river, like the West Bierstadt set out to record, opens up.
The overall palette is restrained, vivid and contrasty, but totally in control. The yellow grasses and deep shadows of the foreground create a vignette around the quietly moving water, its glow spreading out from the center of the painting. Like the riders, it feels like the viewer has wandered into a spectacular and yet untouched cathedral of natural splendor.
Bierstadt traveled to the West to record an unexplored landscape. He emblazoned his vision of the frontier, including Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Sierra Nevada, into the imaginations of those who would never travel east of the Mississippi. His virtuosic depiction of an overwhelming yet peaceful western wilderness creates a sense of discovery with every viewing.
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