Roger M. McCoy
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An important addition to the expeditions that explored western North America were the professional artists and scientists who went with them. In an earlier “Explorer’s Tales” blog (Explorers as Artists, 8/1/2014) I noted that It was not unusual for at least one member of the expedition to have some art training, and the explorers themselves made illustrations for their reports. Many of those illustrations show talent and training, but the illustrator was always a regular member of the expedition and not a professional artist. For example, in the Arctic exploration of the 19th century, the artist typically was one of the naval officers, and their objective was to depict exactly what they saw as illustrations for reports.
When more skilled professional artists accompanied expeditions to western America, the objectives changed from producing illustrations for reports to that of educating an eager public in America and Europe about the wonders of the western landscape and its native inhabitants. The scenes they painted of the west in the 19th century were vastly different from mere illustrations. This second stage of western art was not concerned with graphic documentation so much as it was an expression of the sensations experienced upon seeing the grandeur and immense scale of western lands. These artists portrayed a more romantic view, instilled by the influence of their mentors in Europe, particularly in Germany and Britain. The artists of the newly discovered West presented an idealistic, Eden-like view of the landscape and portrayed the native inhabitants as unspoiled, noble people living in a paradise. Three artists representative of this style are an American, Alfred Jacob Miller, a German-born American, Albert Bierstadt, and an English-born American, Thomas Moran.
Alfred Miller, born 1810, went to Europe at the age of 23 to perfect his skills as a painter. Although he spent most of his time in Paris, he traveled and met artists in Italy and Switzerland. He returned to Baltimore after one year and met a wealthy adventurer, W. D. Stewart, who hired Miller to make a pictorial record of his hunting expedition to the Rocky Mountains. They traveled as far west as the Green River in Wyoming. His style emphasizes the brilliant light of the western atmosphere and the vast scale of the landscape. Viewers in the east and in Europe became fascinated by the exotic nature of western North America.
Albert Bierstadt was born in Germany in 1830 and came to America as a child. At age 23 he returned to Germany for several years to improve his skills by working with artists in Düsseldorf. Returning to America, he traveled as the artist with several western expeditions, and soon became well-known for his sweeping landscapes characterized by a luminous atmospheric glow on cloud-shrouded mountains. The most important of his several trips to the West was one to the Yellowstone region in 1871. After the success of that journey, Bierstadt was in great demand to accompany other expeditions.
Thomas Moran, an American born in England in 1837, was a devotee of the style of British painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. Moran’s paintings have a character similar to Turner’s, and Moran acknowledged Turner’s influence. In 1871 Moran was invited to join the Hayden survey into the Yellowstone region. While there he painted more than 30 sites in Yellowstone and his works strongly influenced Congress in the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872.
A fourth American painter, George Catlin (1798-1872) is in a category altogether different from Miller, Bierstadt, and Moran. Catlin made five journeys to the West in the 1830s, with the objective of documenting the many Indian tribes and their customs, rituals, and character. He applied his artistic skills to accurate portrayals of native cultures that were rapidly changing and disappearing. His distinction was his passion for accurate and meaningful observation and a love for the exotic culture of the native people inhabiting the west. From 1832 to 1840 Catlin visited forty-eight tribes, painted 310 portraits in native dress, plus 200 other paintings of villages, games, and rituals. His paintings were often the first record of certain native practices. In one instance, he visited and recorded the Mandan tribe in North Dakota in 1834, just three years before the tribe was nearly annihilated and its settlements deserted due to smallpox. While there he was allowed to witness and paint a secret and punishing male rite of passage, the Okipa ceremony. According to Goetzmann, “Catlin’s great talent was to see the Indian as he saw himself...with the unself-conscious pride of the unvanquished.” His art is a tremendous contribution to the documentation of Native American cultures.
The slide show below provides examples of paintings by each of the artists discussed.
Goetzmann, William H., Explorers and Empire, New York: Vintage Books, 1966.
McCoy, Roger M., On The Edge: Mapping North Americas Coasts, New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.