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Dual Exhibitions Explore American Landscapes at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston


Two exhibitions which opened September 6, 2003 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston explore the relationship between American artists and the natural world in paintings spanning three centuries and in 19th and 20th century photographs. "Western Landscapes by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran from the Stark Museum of Art, Orange" examines paintings and oil and watercolor sketches by two of the greatest 19th century painters of the American West. A complementary exhibition, "The American Landscape East to West: Themes in Painting and Photography, 1780-1910", presents more than 40 works from the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston permanent collection that highlight the development of landscape themes in the United States, beginning in the 18th century. Among the featured artists are Charles Willson Peale, Thomas Cole, Frederic Church, and Frederic Remington. Both exhibitions will be shown at the museum's Caroline Wiess Law Building, where The American Landscape will be on view through January 19, 2004, and Western Landscapes will be on view through February 1, 2004.

"These wonderful companion exhibitions underscore the benefits of museum partnerships," said Peter C. Marzio, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston director. "Showing some of the most important paintings from the Stark Museum in tandem with works from the MFAH collection allows a broader and deeper exploration of the American landscape theme, and each exhibition works to enhance the other."

Through a partnership established in 2001, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston borrowed key works from the Stark Museum of Art's extraordinary holdings in exchange for providing gallery space to showcase the Stark's collection. Western Landscapes, the third in a series of exhibitions drawn from the Stark Museum, features two paintings each by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran. The paintings, Storm on Laramie Peak (c. 1883) and Yosemite Valley (1898) [see Stark Museum of Art website for this image] by Bierstadt and The Mirage (1879) [see Stark Museum of Art website for this image] and Mojave Walls (c. 1904-1914) by Moran, are considered among the most significant works in the Stark Collection. Thirteen oil sketches by Bierstadt and five watercolors by Moran complete the exhibition, and demonstrate the working methods and various media employed by the two men to create scenes of the American West that dramatized its unusual geological formations and majestic scenery.

Bierstadt and Moran were both immigrants - Bierstadt from Germany, Moran from England - who developed an interest and expertise in painting scenes of the western territories after traveling to that region as young men. Upon their return to their homes back east, both began to paint large-scale canvases of the places they had seen. Those works brought them great success and secured their reputations as premier "western" artists. Moran's paintings of Yellowstone Canyon and other sites influenced members of Congress to set aside vast areas of the West as national parks.

"Through their dramatic paintings, these two artists encouraged Americans to celebrate their country's natural beauty," said Emily Ballew Neff, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston curator of American painting and sculpture, who is organizing both exhibitions. "Some of the earlier paintings in The American Landscape present romanticized scenes from other areas in the country and help place the Bierstadt and Moran works in historical context. In most cases, and certainly with Bierstadt and Moran, American artists recognized the symbolic significance of the American landscape and used it as a source for exploring religious themes and making it a potent emblem of nationalism."

Bierstadt and Moran are also represented in the first section of The American Landscape by a monumental German rustic scene and a storm at sea, respectively. They join works by Charles Wilison Peale (Landscape, Millbank, c. i8i8), Thomas Cole (Indian Pass, 1847), Robert Scott Duncanson (View of Asheville, 1850), and Frederic Church (Cotopaxi, 1855).

The second section of the exhibition explores the character of landscape in works by Frederic Remington, including Fight for the Water Hole, 1903, and The Herd Boy, c. 1905. Although primarily a painter of human drama, Remington uses landscape to play an important role in the telling of his tales. Among the first to exploit the artistic possibilities of the western plains and deserts, Remington uses its abstract and reductive qualities to create an expressive role for landscape in his western stories. Early 20th century photographs by Edward S. Curtis that address Native American themes comprise the third section of the show.

The final section focuses on 19th century photographs of western landscapes from the Manfred Heiting Collection. Among the photographs are examples by masters of the medium such as Carleton E. Watkins and Eadweard Muybridge. These works portray an expanding nation: its majestic mountain regions, unusual geological formations, and traces of ancient native populations. Through the technically difficult medium of wet-plate technology, these photographers created exquisitely detailed images of the American West, providing the basis for an enduring landscape tradition in American photography and setting the standards by which subsequent zothcentury photographers, such as Ansel Adams, are measured. The work of Ansel Adams is included in a contiguous gallery, in the exhibition American Vision: Photographers from the West, Selections from The Manfred Heiting Collection Given by The Brown Foundation, Inc., on view through February I, 2004.



Western Landscapes by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran from the Stark Museum of Art, Orange is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston and the Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas. Emily Ballew Neff, MFAH curator of American painting and sculpture, is coordinating the exhibition with David Hunt, director of the Stark Museum. The American Landscape East to West: Themes in Painting and Photography, 1780-1910 is organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and coordinated by Emily Ballew Neff, MFAH curator of American painting and sculpture.


More about Western Landscapes

Both Bierstadt (1830-1902) and Moran (1837-1926) created landscapes that celebrated the majestic scenery of the western United States in the 19th century. Bierstadt, known for his paintings of Yosemite and the Rocky Mountains, and Thomas Moran for Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, helped create a view of the west in the 19th century that was previously inaccessible to the American public. German-born Bierstadt and English-born Moran often accompanied government and railroad surveys. Using their knowledge of European art and of landscape painting in the Eastern United States, Bierstadt and Moran created distinctly "American" views of the country's western territories. Their masterful artworks portrayed magnificent sites and powerful forces of nature in the unspoiled American west.

Bierstadt and Moran used photographs and sketches they made on site to recreate the landscapes of their western travels. Back in their studios, they each composed monumental canvases using these memory aids. On view are oil sketches and watercolors that demonstrate these work methods.

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