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1876: Centennial Horizons

After the Civil War ended in 1865, America entered an extended period of self-examination that culminated in the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. American artists increasingly looked both east, to Europe, and west, to the frontier, in search of new ideas and inspiration. Largely assembled in the midst of the Centennial era, the Athenaeum's art collection bears witness to the preoccupations of the period. This tour highlights key works in the collection that illuminate that pivotal moment in America's cultural history.

Americans were keenly aware of the western landscape's potential for economic exploitation, and artists offered audiences on the east coast innumerable portrayals of the vast western landscape to satisfy curiosity about its natural wonders. More than most of his peers, Albert Bierstadt provided a personal sense of the western landscape in his paintings. Trained in Europe, he brought the landscape aesthetic that he honed among the Italian Alps to America's Rockies. Bierstadt's monumental compositions, including The Domes of the Yosemite (1867).

The Domes, which dominates any visit to the Athenaeum's Art Gallery, eloquently conveyed the incredible magnitude of the valley in a manner that audiences could experience for themselves. Viewers were effectively immersed in the scenery, filling their field of vision in a manner akin to the big-screen televisions and movie theaters of today. Bierstadt sent paintings such as this one on tour to major cities, charging visitors admission for the opportunity to experience for themselves a landscape that very few of them would ever visit in person. In an era when black-and-white photography already offered viewers a direct transcription of nature, Bierstadt also offered glowing color and majestic scale. Try to imagine how it would feel if this were the very first time you saw a depiction of the Yosemite Valley.

In a landmark address given in 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner discussed the cardinal significance of the frontier to American history and identity. "Up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West," he observed. The western landscape not only offered beautiful and breathtaking scenery, it also promised economic opportunity for Americans who found few such opportunities in the more densely populated and economically developed east. Samuel Colman's Emigrant Train, Colorado (1872), documents a westward-bound caravan of covered wagons.

Colman's painting romanticizes the long journey to California, with a healthy herd of cattle, plentiful water, favorable weather, and even a woman and child. The latter's presence domesticates the scene. Colman's portrayal nevertheless retains a note of caution, suggesting that winter impends. Bravery and perseverance were considered the settlers' hallmarks, and Colman's composition accentuates the optimism of westward migration that lured Americans west throughout the later century. How do you think that Colman's paintings would have reinforced east coast residents' sense of their national identity?

While Bierstadt helped to pioneer the Western landscape for American audiences, his younger colleagues increasingly followed his path in seeking professional training in Europe. More and more, however, they also chose to remain abroad as expatriates, rather than return to the United States. Among Europe's rural villages, in particular, artists such as Wordsworth Thompson found inspiration in the persistence of folk traditions, in contrast to the rapid industrialization of urban areas. Whereas the American west offered a landscape ostensibly free of history, Europe's regional traditions provided a sense of stability in a changing world. Thompson's Waiting for the Steamboat at Menaggio, Lake Como (1874), in northern Italy provides a detailed social panorama, as diverse at Bierstadt's landscape is grandiose.

The different social classes dressed in an array of costumes mingle peaceably by the lake-side at the foot of the soaring Alps. The rich cultural history of Europe provides a remarkable counterpoint to the western Unites States, where Native American traditions were largely ignored by American artists. What similarities and differences do yo see between Thompson's community of figures waiting for the steamboat and Colman's emigrants?

Worthington Whittredge's On the Plains, Colorado (1872), is, at least on its surface, an uncommonly sensitive portrayal of Plains Indians.

Like most Euro-American artists of the time, Whittredge had relatively little exposure to Native American culture, and depicted his subjects coexisting with the natural environment. Their encampment takes shelter in a tall stand of cottonwood trees along the Platte River. Although Whittredge made little effort to address the individuality of particular figures, he presents them as neither overtly threatening nor culturally backward. Compared with Colman's depiction of an emigrant train, there are remarkable thematic similarities, including communal interdependence and harmony with nature. Unlike the Colman, in which the site is merely a brief stopping point on a longer journey, or the Bierstadt, in which the site in unique for its incredible grandeur, Whittredge's composition treats the Colorado plain as an Edenic destination unto itself, as yet largely undisturbed by Euro-American settlements. More often, eastern audiences seem to have preferred identifiable and iconic views such as Bierstadt's, however. Not coincidentally, scenic tourism ascended to new heights during this period, and art viewers, like many tourists, derived reassurance from following recognizable, well-traveled paths. In the eyes of eastern viewers who had never visited the west, what role do you think Native Americans played in Whittredge's landscape?

Another question that bears asking in nineteenth-century American art is whether the emigrants and Native Americans portrayed at the United States' western frontier resemble the European peasants who were fixtures in contemporary European and expatriate American art. Although the answer may vary from case to case, an illuminating example is offered by Thomas Waterman Wood's reproduction of Rosa Bonheur's celebrated Plowing in the Niivernais, which continued to attract interest two decades after its completion in 1849.

Bonheur painted the work as an homage to "the art of tracing the furrows from which comes the bread that nourishes humanity." The farmers guiding the giant teams are barely visible behind their muscular oxen. These are neither Colman's emigrants, nor Whittredge's Indians, but they bear resemblances to both. At peace with nature and the land they work, Bonheur's figures have elements in common with Whittredge's Indians. On the other hand, the farmers' control over their animals is seemingly tenuous at best, comparable to the temprary respite of Colman's emigrants. Wood's admiration for the way Bonheur treated her figures may have derived from their combination of the attributes of natural harmony and human struggle with the forces of nature that animate Whittredge's and Colman's compositions respectively. How do you think the landscape itself in Bonheur's painting compares with that in Whittredge's and Colman's works?

In the later nineteenth century, Europe's rich cultural history held considerable, vicarious interest for American artists. Very little was known or documented about the nation's cultural tradition was sililarly brief. When artists such as Charles Loring Brown traveled abroad, therefore, they found great interest in landscapes that were significant to recorded history. Two works by Brown that hang in the Athenaeum's Art Gallery are On the Grand Canal, Venice (1880), and Bay of Naples (1853/1873). On The Grand Canal portrays the historic architecture of the Grand Canal in Venice.

The Bay of Naples depicts the historic eruption of Italy's Mt. Vesuvius in 79 C.E.

For American artists of the later nineteenth century, Venice wielded an almost magical allure. Its history and romance, evoked by Brown in the transcendent luminosity of the Renaissance Church of Santa Maria della Salute, were unlike anything in the United States and suggested an enduring anything in the United States and suggested an enduring link with the past. For American artists, historic European landscapes and cityscapes offered a form of exoticism. In contrast to America's own recent and violent history, Europe and the American west both offered havens from the realities of the United States during Reconstruction.

Come visit the Art Gallery and discover other works in which the artists either contended with or sought refuge from the nation's recent history.