The Rocky Mountains: A Vision for Artists in the Nineteenth Century. Patricia Trenton and Peter H. Hassrick. University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, in association with the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyoming, 1983. XIX + 418 pages, 129 black and white and 54 color plates, map, bibliography. $65.00.
The progression of artists into the Rocky Mountains was closely allied to the westward course of empire. It began early in the century with the surveyors and illustrators who accompanied various exploratory expeditions and whose function was to delineate the terrain for a curious but uninformed government. These official artists were soon followed by others whose inspiration came more from the grandeur and majesty of the scenery and who formed part of the Romantic movement that rose to prominence during the nineteenth century. Later, the region developed its own “native” artists. Art academies sprang up and mu seums and art associations were formed; art, which had previously been the province of isolated individuals, became an accepted part of the Rocky Mountain cultural scene.
The artists included in this volume range from the obscure to the prominent: the self-taught, the inspired and the merely competent all have a place. Their pictures, too, cover a wide spectrum, ranging from the primitive and the purely representational to the realistic and, on occasion, surrealistic. For the most part, they are relatively small in scale-—a concession to the difficulty of transporting large-size canvasses and vast amounts of bulky equipment. Later, in the safety of the studio, some of the sketches would be worked up into large and, even, giant-size paintings.
The names of these artists were not exactly household words at the time and, even now, most are known primarily to specialists in the field. Samuel Seymour, George Carl Ludwig Preuss and John Henry Hill are undoubtedly less well known than Major Stephen H. Long, John C. Fremont and Clarence King, the leaders of the expeditions they accompanied. Who has heard of Mrs. Jonas W. Brown whose “Mining in Boise Basin in the Early Seventies” provides a charming, if somewhat naive, record of the scene? Or German-born Rudolf Cronau and his “Canon and Great Falls of the Yellowstone River in Wy.”? Yet, its gothic crags, executed in extremes of light and dark, are truly a wonder.
More familiar, perhaps, are the established artists of the day who were also drawn to the region. Prominent among them were Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran and, later, Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell. Like most of the artists who came to the Rockies, Bierstadt and Moran were primarily concerned with the scenery; such figures as do appear in their paintings are almost incidental. Although probably better known for his monumental representations of Yosemite, Bierstadt was also active in the Rockies and we are indebted to him for some marvelously luminous works. One, in particular, “Sunset Light, Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains” (1861) stands as a fine example of Bierstadt’s peculiarly Romantic vision.
The authors call Thomas Moran, for whom Mount Moran was named, “the Turner of the West.” His “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1872) and “In the Teton Range, Idaho 1899” admirably demonstrate a command of light and color that results in pictures with a wonderful mix of strength and softness.
With later artists such as Remington, who was bom in New York State and first came west in 1881, and the St. Louis-born Russell, the focus of interest shifted from pure depiction of the terrain and the landscape, with the occasional figure interjected, to a concern with the West as a culture and not just a geo graphical entity. Through their eyes and others, such as the French-born Henry Farny, we are treated to graphic, even stirring, scenes of the Indians. A final example of the shift away from pure scenery can be seen in Walter Paris’ 1891 “Glenwood Springs, Colorado” in which the town’s modest two-story buildings and a railroad bridge, complete with train, share equal prominence with the peaks behind.
The Rocky Mountains: A Vision for Artists in the Nineteenth Century is both handsomely produced and carefully researched. The text and the extensive bibliography provide a wealth of information about the artists who came to the Rockies during the nineteenth century as well as about the history of the region. Although it has the appearance of a coffee-table book, it also has the substance of a scholarly work. This is a book that will inform and delight those who are interested in the Rocky Mountains and their role in America’s artistic and social history.
Patricia A. Fletcher