Anyone who’s driven down I-5 on a sunny day and seen Mount Rainier rise above the horizon knows the power of the Pacific Northwest landscape. But a new Seattle Art Museum exhibit examines the continent’s purple mountains majesty through the eyes of awestruck 19th-century artists experiencing the “Great West” for the first time: Sanford Gifford, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran among them. In Beauty and Bounty: American Art in the Age of Exploration, SAM’s American art curator Patricia Junker has gathered more than 120 landscape paintings and photographs from the 19th and 20th centuries—several from private collections that have rarely been seen in public.
Of note is a room dedicated to Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, a permanent piece in SAM’s collection that has been criticized for…well, not looking much like the Sound. Bierstadt never actually made it this far north during his travels, but his “dreamland” is well informed, Junker says, and the exhibit includes texts, photos, and artifacts that inspired the painter in 1870.
These are paintings for the poet as well as the journalist; some were drafted in order to lure settlers to California, while others had preservationist agendas. Gifford in particular was concerned about the destruction of forests—so much so that his close friend, logging millionaire James Pinchot, came to regret the environmental damage he’d done and named his son after the Hudson River School artist. Gifford Pinchot later went on to be the first head of the U.S. Forest Service. Many of the works offer an “Edenic, peaceful” counterpoint to the wartime trauma of the 1860s, said Junker, while John Frederick Kensett’s Lake George (1865)—one of the East Coast pieces—offers a “kind of normalcy: something so simple and ordinary” as a picnic on the beach.
If you’re not a fan of 19th-century landscape paintings, there are some clever stereograph images—the original 3D—and mammoth plate images by pioneers of photography, including Carleton Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge, that are equally dynamic as the oil on canvas.
Paired with Beauty and Bounty is contemporary art exhibit Reclaimed: Nature and Place Through Contemporary Eyes, featuring 45 works that show the artist’s relationship with the natural environment. It’s hard to miss Whiting Tennis’s Bovine, a 14-foot-long ox-conestoga wagon hybrid, an allusion to migration West. View the slideshow above for more images from both exhibits.
Beauty and Bounty and Reclaimed are both on display June 30–Sept 11 at Seattle Art Museum.