A Bierstadt Moment

The Mattatuck has several wonderful exhibits right now, calling for your attention.

Alex Katz, The Green Cap, 1985, Whitney Museum of America Art, New York; Purchase with funds from the Print Committee_MED.jpg 2014-02-25 15.42.33





Alex Katz works from the Whitney, with my favorite–the self portrait on aluminum, standing up center gallery.  Isn’t he a charmer?

Rhythm in Blues 2013 14 x 11 inches_LR.jpg

The contemporary photo-realist landscape paintings by Charles Yoder are the perfect compliment to the wonderful Albert Bierstadt show.  Yes, Yoder works from photographs, then blows up the image in oil.

Moonlight.  Shadows.  Eerily beautiful.  Familiar.  Other-worldly.  Meditative.  Awe-inspiring.

To be awe-inspiriing was one of the goals 175 years ago for Hudson River School painters like Bierstadt, and this exhibit is about how he used photography as inspiration, too.  Hunting for good locations and images for his brothers’ photography business (they made and sold “3D” stereoscope images), he would often paint the scene, in his burgeoning Romantic mode.  These paintings are from his New England period, while he was in his late 20s and early 30s, before the great and huge Western US images that made him so famous.

I think he’s already yearning for the West.  Here’s my art history moment for the day, shared during my visit with the Mattatuck curator Cynthia Roznoy in our catch-up chat.  The show features two paintings of one location, very exacting as you can see.  One was painted in 1862, the other 1868.  So during and before the Civil War.


Albert Bierstadt, Mt Ascutney from Claremont, NH, 1862


AB_CT river valley_unframed.jpg

Albert Bierstadt, Connecticut River Valley, Claremont, NH, 1868









The wall label for the 1862 work says its motivation was to show what the war was being fought for–the peaceful and plentiful countryside.  For the 1868 painting, the label discusses how the splintered tree was typically used as a symbol for civilization encroaching on the countryside and in this work, also refers to the destruction of the war.  Here’s my New Britain Museum of American Art blog post on the blasted tree symbol.

I wonder if even more is going on with the two paintings.  The earlier painting seems almost wistful in its golden tones, while the post-war work is brighter and more verdant.  Can you see how the 1862 painting has a fence dividing a great swath across the painting from lower right to upper left, which Bierstadt emphasizes even more with sunlight?  The same fence in the 1862 image is in shadow, not nearly so important, or so divisive.  What’s in the nation’s conscious in 1862 is the split, while by 1868, reconstructing unity is paramount.

The mountains in the 1862 painting are forbidding and uncrossable.  I’m projecting that we are facing north, so those mountains block the West, making that mythic place inaccessible.  By 1868, the railroad is being built West, and one year later, the transcontinental railroad will be complete.  Look at how much easier those mountains would be to forge.  As re-unification is happening, so is expansion, a deep identifier in this country’s white history–to face challenges, conquer, and expand; face challenges, conquer, and expand; all the way to the moon and back.

These two paintings, made just 6 years apart, tell that story quietly, side by side, in this beauty of a show.  I hope you can get there to see it.