The frontier spirit is part of America’s birthright, and the most tangible expression of that spirit was the march westward throughout the 19th century. For American pioneers, the West held the promise of new lands and opportunities; for American visionaries it embodied one of the last outreaches of the imagination–a wilderness whose primeval beauties and dangers incarnated the quintessential Romantic experience. Just as composers like Charles Wakefield Cadman and Arthur Farwell, or musicologists like John and Alan Lomax, with their cowboy ballads and folk tune collections, were drawn to exploit western themes, so, too, were visual artists, who helped to define Americans’ image of the West.
Albert Bierstadt, (1830-1902)
The German-born Bierstadt, whose teachers included German Romantic painter Carl Friedrich Lessing, drew his initial American inspiration from the painters of the Hudson River School. After a brief period of activity in the White Mountains, he departed for St. Louis in 1858 and then struck out on his own for the Wyoming Territory, where he spent a solitary summer sketching American Indians, wild animals, and virgin landscape.
These he transformed into his grand-scale canvasses like Yosemite Valley (he painted Yosemite many times) and Thunderstorm in the Rocky Mountains, whose technical theatricality communicated the spirit of adventure associated with the West, and whose virtuosity lifted the viewer into the contemplation of the sublime natural realm.
Frederic Remington, (1861-1909)
Born around the time that Bierstadt’s paintings were creating a stir in New York galleries, Frederic Remington studied art at Yale and New York’s Art Students League before heading west for health reasons. Holding down a series of jobs from clerk to cowboy, Remington found his métier as a visual chronicler of the rugged frontier life.
With his illustrations, paintings, and sculptures of cowboys and Native Americans, Remington helped to shape the romantic mythos of the heroic cowboy life. In their raw virility and ability to freeze the drama at the heat of the moment, works like his 1895 sculpture Bronco Buster and his 1898 The Scalp record the nostalgia that the white man at the turn of the century felt for the fading vigor of the Old West.
–Thomas Hampson and Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, PBS I Hear America Singing
Print: Silver Lake, California (A. Bierstadt, c. 1867), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Digital ID: cph 3a25131