19TH CENTURY ART
SCRIPT - A STORM IN THE ROCKY MOUNTAINS
SFX: BIG THEATRICAL FANFARE...CROWD APPLAUSE
Today, when a blockbuster movie opens, long lines of fans crowd the theater, clutching their tickets, waiting excitedly. In the mid-nineteenth century, a painting could receive that kind of attention…especially the unveiling of the latest painting by the artist Albert Bierstadt. Here’s what it was like…
SFX: LIGHT PERIOD MUSIC/ EXCITED CROWD WAITING
The year is 1866... people are lined up to enter the gallery and see Albert Bierstadt’s latest panoramic painting...A Storm in the Rocky Mountains—Mount Rosalie. It’s on a tour of major US cities and European capitals. And remember.... it’s just one painting. But what a painting! Twelve feet wide and seven feet tall. Bierstadt is famous for his monumental, detailed landscapes of the Rocky Mountains and western United States. He went to Colorado in 1863 to make sketches for this panorama, and he’s worked on it in his New York studio for three years. He’s a skillful painter, and he’s a skillful entrepreneur. He generates excitement for the tour by inviting newspaper reporters to his studio to cover the progress of the painting.
In each city on the tour, he displays the painting in a gallery as if it’s on a theater stage. It’s surrounded by dark drapery, and the only light in the room falls only on the painting. Finally, it’s time. The artist slowly, dramatically, opens the gallery doors to the waiting crowd...
SFX: MUSIC GONE/CROWD AND APPLAUSE
The wait has been worth it. Once again Bierstadt dazzles with his romantic view of the wildness and the potential of the Rocky Mountains. His audience thrills at both its size and grandeur, and its incredible detail. Bierstadt’s paintings helped to shape the opinions of the American public about the West in the nineteenth century.
And now here’s a verbal description of A Storm in the Rocky Mountains – Mount Rosalie. It’s an oil painting on canvas, seven feet high and twelve feet across. To appreciate it, we must step back to take in its panoramic view, and then move very close to see its realistic details.
SFX: OUTDOOR FOREST AMBIENCE/BIRDS/
First, the panoramic view. The painting shows a lake valley in the Rocky Mountains. Your point of view is as if you are standing on a small mountain, looking down into the valley and straight across to other mountains in the far distance. It’s called a bird’s eye view. Far across the valley, huge dramatic storm clouds are gathering.
The scene is dominated by a mountain slope on the right of the composition that starts at the top right corner of the frame, and sweeps down on a diagonal line to the bottom center and left of the painting. The mountainside is covered with pine and aspen trees, wildflowers, and grasses typical of the Rockies, painted with exquisite and accurate detail.
When you reach the bottom left of the composition, you find a grassy valley with a gently meandering river that leads your eye to a small lake in the middle ground. Native Americans are camped in tepees on the banks of the river. The lake and mountain cliffs that surround the camp are brightly lit by the sun, which shines through a break in the clouds.
SFX: LOW THUNDER IN BACKGROUND
Just above this lake and further in the distance is a second lake, almost hidden by fierce, thick black storm clouds, which rise up around a mountain peak almost at the top edge of the composition. This peak is bright white in the sunlight, almost as if it’s in a spotlight. There are blue skies all around the peak. This is Mount Rosalie, 14,000 feet high and named after Bierstadt’s wife. Since that time the mountain has been renamed Mount Evans in honor of John Evans, a Colorado governor.
From Mount Rosalie your eye is drawn to the top right of the composition, to another area of bright white clouds. Against the clouds is the silhouette of an
eagle flying high in the sky. These clouds are partially hidden by the mountainside on the right, where you began your viewing of the painting.
If you move close to the painting, you notice scenes on the mountainside that are too small to be seen from a distance. In the lower right corner, there’s a shady clear green pool and a stream surrounded by wildflowers. Nearby, a hunting party of Native Americans has left a campfire, a deer they were skinning, a saddle and a blanket.
SFX: DISTANT HORSE RUNNING
The hunters are heading down the mountain...one on horseback, two on foot, chasing two other horses spooked by the thunder of the coming storm. A small dog also runs with the hunters.
ALL SFX OUT
Albert Bierstadt was part of the Hudson River School, the name given to a loose grouping of landscape painters. Their paintings reflect three themes of America in the 19th century: discovery, exploration, and settlement.
Bierstadt’s paintings, like a Storm in the Rocky Mountains, reveal a complex attitude Americans had in the19th century about nature and the nation. On the one hand, Americans romanticized the wild, natural, and unspoiled landscape as a spiritual paradise. From these ideas, and paintings like Bierstadt’s, a preservation movement arose, which eventually led to our present-day national park system.
But, preservationist ideas conflicted with Manifest Destiny, one of the central issues of mid-19th century American politics. Manifest Destiny was the belief that the United States was destined to expand from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Ocean.
Critics suggest that how Bierstadt portrayed Native Americans in this painting...tiny figures almost lost in the immense landscape... is a sign of their ultimate fate in light of Manifest Destiny.