COLLECTION CONNECTIONS: The West as Imagination featuring Worthington Whittredge’s "Old Hunting Grounds" and Albert Bierstadt "Sierra Nevada"

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COLLECTION CONNECTIONS: The West as Imagination featuring Worthington Whittredge’s "Old Hunting Grounds" and Albert Bierstadt "Sierra Nevada"

By Kathleen Hutton, Director of Education|@LearnReynolda

There is always a great deal of excitement and interest whenever we host a temporary exhibition in Reynolda’s Mary and Charlie Babcock Wing.  Borrowing and displaying works from other museums expands our interpretation and deepens visitors’ understanding of American art. It also provides an opportunity to re-examine and learn more about the objects in Reynolda House’s own American art collection. 

Our online gallery, The West in the American Imagination, features works about the settlement of the land which Europeans initially regarded as wilderness, although it was home to American Indian tribes, and its incorporation into the United States of America.   This virtual exhibition is intended as an online resource as well as a complement to George Catlin’s American Buffalo, the exhibition currently on view through May 3, 2015This is the second of three blog posts about a specific pair of paintings that are relevant to the art of George Catlin (1796-1872).

Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) were landscape painters associated with the Hudson River School.  Although both artists would spend time in the outdoors making studies from nature, their final compositions express ideals of Romanticism, a cultural movement predominant in this country from the Revolutionary period through the outbreak of the Civil War.  A Romantic artist would have understood civilization in terms of cycles; in this view, American Indians would be regarded as belonging to the past, with no foreseeable place for the Indian in the present or future development of the United States.  To some like George Catlin this was extremely regrettable, to others in a more expansionist way of thinking, this was simply progress.

Raised on a farm, Whittredge had a lifelong appreciation of nature. His early artistic ambition prompted a move to Cincinnati at age 17, where he learned sign painting from a brother-in-law, then to Indianapolis, where his daguerreotype business began and failed, on to Charleston, West Virginia where he switched to portraiture. After deciding he would rather paint landscapes, he returned to Cincinnati for a few years. In 1849, the largely self-taught artist travelled to Europe to study painting at the Düsseldorf Academy.   There he met fellow Americans and lifelong friends Sanford Gifford and Emanuel Leutze. He also befriended the German-born Albert Bierstadt and when Bierstadt was not admitted to the Düsseldorf Academy, Whittredge agreed to give him instruction. The two spent the summer of 1856 traveling and painting in Switzerland and that fall moved to Rome where Gifford and William Stanley Haseltine joined them. After learning of Frederic Church’s tremendous popular and critical success back home with the exhibition of massive landscape painting The Heart of the Andes (1859), Whittredge returned to the United States after being away for almost ten years.  He took a studio in the Tenth Street Studio building in New York City where Church had his studio along with several other artists from Düsseldorf, e.g. Bierstadt, Gifford, and Haseltine.  Although he returned as a respected artist, elected to membership in the National Academy of Design, Whittredge initially struggled with his re-entry into the national art scene.  He recalled: 

“I knew well enough that if I was to succeed I must produce something new and which might claim to be inspired by my home surroundings. . . I hid myself for months in the recesses of the Catskills.  But how different was the scene before me from anything I had been looking at for many years!  The forest was a mass of decaying logs and tangled brush wood, no peasants to pick up every vestige of fallen sticks to burn in their miserable huts, now well-ordered forests, nothing but the primitive woods with their solemn silence reigning everywhere.”

CREDIT: Worthington Whittredge, The Old Hunting Grounds, 1864. Oil on canvas, Reynolda House Museum of American Art. 

Whittredge had risen to the challenge of portraying the Catskills scenery by the time he painted The Old Hunting Grounds in 1864.  It is impossible to know if he was aware of current events affecting American Indians, especially that year’s massacre of Cheyenne and Arapahoe Indians at Sand Creek in Colorado , but in any case he would not have painted such subject matter.  His intent for this painting was likely to be that described by the critic Henry Tuckerman in 1867:

“His “Old Hunting Ground” has well been called an idyl [sic], telling its story in the deserted, broken canoe, the shallow bit of water wherein a deer stoops to drink, and the melancholy silver birches that bend under the weight of years, and lean toward each other as though breathing of the light of other days ere the red man sought other grounds, and left them to sough and sigh in solitude.”   

  • What do you see in this painting that is not part of the natural forest scene?
  • Who do you think used it?
  • How was it made?
  • What might be Whittredge’s explanation for the symbolism of this object? 
  • What meaning does this image have for you?

Shortly after he completed The Old Hunting Grounds, Whittredge departed for his first trip to the American west in 1866, as a civilian staff member with General John Pope’s military expedition into the Missouri territory to enforce peace, especially around the Arkansas and Platte routes .  Like George Catlin more than thirty years earlier, Whittredge was enthusiastic about the landscape of the Great Plains:

“I rode that summer over two thousand miles on horseback, passing up the Platte (River) to Denver and along the base of the  mountains until we crossed them at the Spanish Peaks and went over to Santa Fe and Albuquerque on the Rio Grande, returning over the old Cimarron trail about the end of September.  I had never seen the plains or anything like them.  They impressed me deeply.  I cared more for them than for the mountains.”

Unlike Catlin, however, Whittredge was not sympathetic to the tribes that Pope’s expedition encountered, expressing distrust and prejudice for the Utes in particular.  In 1820, the year of Whittredge’s birth in Springfield, Ohio, the resident bands of the Shawnee tribe had long departed from central Ohio, following their defeats during the American Revolutionary War at the Battle of Piqua (1780) by General George Rogers Clark and his Kentucky Rangers.   Whether the artist’s memory was cloudy on that score, the eighty-five year old Whittredge wrote in his 1905 autobiography:

“Log cabins were the rule and I was born in one.  The Shawnee Indians were still in the vicinity; I remembered seeing a remnant of the tribe as they were on their way to new hunting grounds.  General Harrison had but a little while before routed them in Indiana at Tippecanoe.  The great Tecumseh, himself, was born at Springfield, near us.”

Whittredge in recounting his life story thus establishes himself as a quintessential American, using the powerful symbolism of the log cabin and long-ago encounter with the so-called vanishing Indian.  In the final post of this series, we will consider how these same symbol-stereotypes as constructs of American identity continued their hold on the national imagination into the first half of the twentieth century.


Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Sierra Nevada, 1871-73  

CREDIT: Albert Bierstadt, Sierra Nevada, (1871-1873). Oil on canvasReynolda House Museum of American Art.

By 1859, the year of Albert Bierstadt’s first journey west with Col. Frederick Lander’s surveying party to explore the Rocky Mountains, Oregon was the thirty-third and newest state in the Union. Many other American artists, chiefly George Catlin but also Karl Bodmer, Alfred Jacob Miller, John Mix Stanley and even the photographer Carleton Watkins, had already gained fame for their images of scenery west of the Mississippi. Yet Bierstadt wrote in an 1859 article for the art journal The Crayon as if he were a contemporary of George Catlin thirty years earlier:  “The manners and customs of the Indians are still as they were hundreds of years ago, and now is the time to paint them, for they are rapidly passing away, and soon will be known only in history. I think that the artist ought to tell his portion of their history as well as the writer; a combination of both will assuredly render it more complete.”

Upon his return from the west in 1860, Bierstadt filled his New York with plein air oil sketches, stereographs (he and his brother had a photography studio together), and Indian artifacts (including but not limited to buffalo robes, blankets, feathers, arrows, and moccasins). Bierstadt’s attention, along with that of the nation, was gripped by the Civil War and he only exhibited a painting or two from his Wyoming trip. Not until after his second trip west in 1863 did he became prolific in producing finished paintings from his western travel sketches. On the 1863 trip, Bierstadt was accompanied by author Fitz Hugh Ludlow and their party followed the southern route of the Overland Trail to California. From San Francisco they took a sketching trip with other artists to the Yosemite Valley and also travelled north to Mt. Hood in Oregon. In 1871 Bierstadt returned to California for a third time, this time travelling by train. He stayed two-and-a half years, sketching in Yosemite, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and around Lake Tahoe. After the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, Yosemite became crowded with tourists, yet none of this is evident in Sierra Nevada, Reynolda's ainting from his third tripNot a human is to be seen in this image; the gorgeous scenery is its subject and Bierstadt presents it in a stunning composition that directs the eye over every part of the canvas.  A contemporary critic said as early as 1865 of Bierstadt’s landscapes that the role of the viewer became “a mere looker-on, who after the surprise of novelty is gone, coolly or impatiently criticizes the view.”  Despite such criticism Bierstadt continued to be popular with audiences eager for images of western scenery and picturesque American Indians and was able to sell paintings for record prices through the 1870s.

  • What is going on in this painting?  Include what you see that supports your opinion.
  • How would Americans in the 1870s respond to this image of California?
  • What is your response to this image?

One of Bierstadt’s last great paintings was The Last of the Buffalo (1888), a massive canvas six feet high by ten feet wide, formerly in the collection of the Corcoran Gallery, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.  The painting was rejected for the Paris Exposition of 1889 and critics in this country were also not impressed.   What is striking now about this massive and arresting work is that it suggests Bierstadt may have understood better than his viewers how the fate of the Plains Indian tribes and American buffalo were so intertwined, since he chose by accident or design to depict them in their past glory when in fact tribes and bison were at their lowest point.  An 1899 United States government census found only about five hundred buffalo remaining in this country (with about the same number in Canada) and in 1890 the final resistance of the Plains Indian tribes ended when over two hundred Lakota men, women and children died in a battle with the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment in the Wounded Knee Massacre near Pine Ridge, South Dakota.

From this very tragic state at the end of the nineteenth century, in 2015 Americans can be grateful that Plains Indians and other Native American tribes have in fact survived, and that we can protect and increase the bison population in the west (and other endangered animals of the Plains), preserve and restore some of their great prairie home, and work harder for better understanding and respect for contemporary Native American people and their cultural heritage.


Read all blogs in the West as Imagination series. 

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