"The West's Best"

by Peter MacMillan Booth






Starting in the mid-1800s, a new generation of artists allowed their awestruck reactions to the sublime beauty and grandeur to flow into their works, resulting in an art that portrayed the West as a land of natural drama and majesty -- unmatched anywhere else in the world.

In the 1850s, artists trained in the romantic style of Europe, such as Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, and ventured out across the plains in search of new subject matter. Overwhelmed by the splendor they discovered, they instead presented the West's mountains and canyons as natural cathedrals. Their paintings portrayed the ageless, immense, dramatic, and even dangerous Western wonderland with its mighty mountains and cavernous canyons dwarfing humanity. Still recovering form the ravages of the Civil War, the nation craved a new nationalistic image. This romantic image of the West filled that niche. Called the American Sublime or Rocky Mountain School, this Western Art style shaped the mid- to late-nineteenth [century] vision of the West. In so doing, they also supplied the world with a new image of the United States.


Key Artists

Albert Bierstadt

(Born: near Dusseldorf, Germany, 1830 - Died: New York, 1902)

The premier artist of the Rocky Mountain School and the one who had the largest influence on America's image of the West was Albert Bierstadt. This German born and trained artist first spent time painting the New England shoreline before heading west in search of new material. Joining a government survey party in 1859, he moved across the plains to the Rocky Mountains. Once there, his creativity and imagination exploded. His huge canvases captured the dramatic and monumental scenery he found. In the foreground, he placed an almost pastoral scene on a backdrop of imposing mountains and dramatic skies. Skies play a key part in his images, using the shadows and lights of clouds and sunbeams to break up and further dramatize the mountain cathedral. The Bierstadt in the DCWM collection, Pike's Peak, is actually one of his smaller sketches, but it is very representative of his style with the picturesque and almost calm foreground being overshadowed by the dramatic mountain. He most likely painted this work plein aire style on his second visit to the West with the photographer Fitzhugh Ludlow (whose young, beautiful wife Bierstadt later married after she divorced Ludlow). The American public were first introduced to Bierstadt at the 1864 New York Sanitary Fair Exhibition, which he won overwhelmingly. His works soon became immensely popular with paintings selling as high as $17,000 in the 1870s. Besides the Rocky Mountain scenes, Bierstadt was known for his impressive Yosemite Valley scenes. Now everyone, however, appreciated his grandiose images of the West. Mark Twain commented, "Some of Mr. Bierstadt's mountains swim in a lustrous pearly mist, which is so enchantingly beautiful that I am sorry the Creator hadn't made it instead."


Thomas Moran

(Born: Bolton, Lancashire, England, 1837 - Died: Santa Barbara, California, 1926)

The leading example of the Rocky Mountain School m the DCWM collection is Thomas Moran's Passing Storm. After an apprenticeship as a woodblock engraver, Moran signed on as the artist accompanying Ferdinand V. Hayden's U.S. geological exploration of Yellowstone. Two years later he rafted down the Colorado River with Major John Wesley Powell's survey of the Grand Canyon. These two trips launched Moran on a career of interpreting the Western scenery he saw for the American public. Like Bierstadt, Moran idealized the landscape, producing a romanticized and aggrandized image of the West. One impact of Moran's work was that much of what he painted eventually became national parks, partly because of the effect his images had on the U.S. Congress, including Yellowstone, which became the nation's first national park in 1872. DCWM has one one of his Grand Canyon works that reflects the near mystic quality of his paintings. This example also shows Moran's effective use of clouds to further emphasize the majesty of the Canyon. On this particular painting, Moran left his thumbprint next to his signature, a sure proof of authenticity.

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

return to page 1 of "The West's Best"; Gallery Guide by Peter MacMillan Booth

This page was originally published in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information. [rev. 5/9/12]

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2012 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.