The Sierra Nevada Mountains - Trevor Hain

The adventurers that found the new land we now know as "America" where wonderful at creating portraits of the area that surrounded them at the times. Many of the biggest obstacles these new settlers and travelers faced on the move westward were the enormous mountain faces that stood in their path. These Mountains where captured as things of beauty even though they brought death and hardship to many during their travels. Albert Bierstadt, Charles Nahl and William Bradford are just a few of the famous painters who sailed to America, traveled west and then sent their paintings to Europe or the east coast, so others could see what the 'Majestic West' was all about. Please enjoy these oil paintings of the Sierra's.

Peter Quivey and the Mountain Lion, Charles Christian Nahl, 1857, From the collection of: de Young museum
“Peter Quivey and the Mountain Lion” captures the true spirit of the adventurer and this new found land known as America. As settlers and adventurers moved further west, they faced new obstacles as I will show in the following paintings. The obstacles we focus on within are the Mountains themselves, however the mountains bring other unexpected dangers as we see here. This portrait of Mr. Peter Quivey represents his victory in the slaughter of a wild animal native to the territory of the Sierra Nevada’s, the mountain lion. This was painted in 1857 and has a width of 26 inches and a height of 34 inches. This is an oil painting done on canvas by Charles Christian Nahl. Behind peter we see the Sierra Nevada’s and in his hands we see a bowie knife along with a revolver as he would have had, being the settler he was. This was the gold rush and settlers came from far and wide to get their share. Peter shows his love for art by having this portrait done. In his time, Peter was said to be a part of the original Donner Party in 1846 but made it to safety. After that time, he went on to fight in the Mexican-American War.
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, Albert Bierstadt, 1865, From the collection of: Birmingham Museum of Art
In this oil on canvas painting created by Albert Bierstadt, we see the artist using linear perspective in it’s fullest form. This painting was created in 1865 and represents the setting sun within the sierra Nevada Mountains. Today this view is seen by millions as they visit Yosemite National Park. As you can tell, the name itself describes the view as this is the one spot most tourists sit to view, draw and paint this wonderful scene. However, this scene shows many important aspects a settler would need to know. Bierstadt records items such as food, water, growth, lush foliage, etc. His painting shows a small animal near the water which represents an area with plentiful hunting and gathering. His trees are painted in such detail and given perfect shadows to show where the light is coming from. Bierstadt captures the moment by using powerful color schemes to show what time of day it is. The small trees and shrubs in the foreground are to scale and we can see just how monstrous these mountains are. At the same time, they provide so much life in the valley. If you visit Yosemite Valley today, you can see the view is exactly the same however those small trees on the waters edge are now over 100 years old and they are protected by the National Parks Act. Using a haze effect, we also feel distance from the mountain face as it looms far from us. We don’t see specific detail on the rock as we do in the following work. Bierstadt’s great attention to detail shows his knowledge in the classic arts he studied in Germany and Italia.
Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, Albert Bierstadt, 1871 - 1873, From the collection of: North Carolina Museum of Art
“Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite,” is an oil painting representative of the times when the settlers moved west in search of new land, gold and a new life. Known as one of the most prominent waterfalls within Yosemite National Park today, we see why Albert Bierstadt found this area of land so important as we notice his work shows that settlers of the time appreciate the mountains they had found. Their trip had been worth the trouble and gold was to be found. We also notice that Bierstadt has been painting these views to show others what it is to be in The Sierra Nevada’s, to witness the Power these mountains hold as they captivate everyone who visits them. The Falls plunge 620 feet to the rocks below, creating a tremendous waterfall that can be seen from afar. Bierstadt painted this in 1871-1873, one year after the Sunrise painting. He shows this waterfalls size by adding scaled items once again. We see a couple of deer feeding in the foreground as the monstrous waterfall is seen from a side view. These deer were important to the settlers’ way of life as they were food. These falls brought more than pleasure and water, they brought food. Bierstadt seems to record the importance of this area by placing necessities within. This is not todays established trail which shows that this area has not been populated or protected yet. Bierstadt is in the group of some of the first settlers, recording what they find. Using shading and a rainbow like effect in the waters spray we feel as if the water is flowing rapidly, creating droplets within the air. The pinkish hue shows the vapor to be thick as the water crashes among the rocks. This technique creates motion. His trees are not perfect which makes them feel very real.
Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, Albert Bierstadt, ca. 1870, From the collection of: Amon Carter Museum of American Art
In “Sunrise, Yosemite Valley”, we see the artist Albert Bierstadt painting an oil on canvas once again. This time we see a view similar to the view we saw in his other work, “Looking Down Yosemite Valley,” However this time we are closer to the massive mountain face. It also feels as we are looking up to the mountain from the valley floor. Bierstadt uses powerful colors once again to represent the sunrise as it beams its glorious light among the mountains and the valley below. This painting was done in 1870 and we see how the artist uses this light to show more detail of the mountain as the sun rises. We also see a change in the greenery near the waters edge. This time, the trees have aged since the last painting.
Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite, Albert Bierstadt, 1870, Original Source:
In this Painting, “Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite,” we see that Bierstadt paints from the most popular view of Cathedral Rocks. This view has been chosen by artists of all mediums and if you have seen a photo you can tell that Bierstadt captures the view in all of it’s beauty. Once again we see another work by Albert Bierstadt. Again, this is an oil on canvas with dimensions of 60x45 cm. This painting was done in 1870 and was acquired by a woman named Julia Billings. Julia Bilings noted, “He (Frederick Bierstadt) brought from N.Y. a fine landscape by Bierstadt.” The painting was acquired in Woodstock New York by Julia Billings husband. Bierstadt traveled to America and set up shop in New York after visiting Yosemite in the years before. Born in Düsseldorf Germany, Albert grew up in New Bedford Mass but returned to Düsseldorf as an art studied where he studied painting. He later studied in Rome. If you have ever been in the Sierra Nevada’s, you know that storms can come from no where in the snap of the fingers. In this portrait Bierstadt captures what looks like a moment before the storm. We see his use of faint color creating a small, almost translucent effect of the low clouds floating in. The use of scale once again shows the depth of the painting. Everything is somewhat grey as the storm comes in and shadows the sun, yet we see an opening where the clouds break allowing the suns rays to lay strictly upon the Cathedral Rocks themselves, showing the Power and importance of this range. We see shadows from the trees in the foreground, and the trees behind, scaled down to show distance, emphasizing the mountain face. The use of warm pinks and oranges highlight the mountain and show the warm suns rays. Cathedral Rocks are portrayed perfectly within this painting, showing the settlers and adventurers of the time still had to fear these giants even though they brought food, water and shelter. These mountains did not move and if you could not go around, you went over. Albert Bierstadt shows the true obstacles of the early settler through his works of the Rock Faces of Yosemite.
Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, William Bradford, 1881, Original Source:
Now we look at William Bradford and his oil on canvas painting titled, “Sunset in Yosemite Valley.” This painting was done in 1881 and varies drastically in style to that of Bierstadt. At the same time however we see many similarities. Both show powerful use of color and both grew up in the same area of New Bedford Mass. And both had studios in New York. Bradford however was more into works of arctic scenes and marine paintings. In this work, Bradford is emphasizing the beauty of the sunset and uses strong colors to emphasize the falling sun on a chilly winter day. Bradford also uses shadow to show depth of the mountain peaks in the distance. This view is very similar to Bierstadt and other painters of the time but we can see this is a different season all together. Is this telling us of the hardships faced? Or is this a painting showing thanks to finally arriving? In the foreground we see snow which William seems to have used a blending effect to create. Small shadows within give the snow depth as the grass below peaks out of the snow here and there. The trees in front of the mountain range are deep shadows, outlines we assume to be trees as the shadows of night begin to fall on them. The left side of the scene is starting to darken, yet the mountain with its high stature still captures the sun yet blocks its rays from the growth below. Many faces of the mountain are shaded providing depth, showing even the mountain can’t hold the sun forever. We see the glimmer of the sun rays reflecting from the river as it catches what’s left. To the right, darkness has begun and William uses shading perfectly as the shadow in the water lines up with the mountains edge. The clouds in the sky from left to right want us to look west before the sun falls as its fiery beauty is portrayed above in the clouds. From the east we see shadows within the clouds as they stop reflecting light, yet to the west we see a fiery orange, red hue within the clouds above as they create an even deeper colored haze created from the sun. On the dark side of the mountain on the right we still see a small bit of snow representing the settlers are there in early spring or the beginning of fall.
Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Valley, California, Albert Bierstadt (American, b.1830, d.1902), 1871 - 1873, From the collection of: Cincinnati Art Museum
Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite Valley, California, was created circa 1871-1873 by Albert Bierstadt and here we see a completely different view than we do in his first painting of Bridalveil Falls. In this oil on canvas, Bierstadt attempts a painting from the opposite side of the falls in full daylight. There is not a cloud in the sky and the blues show a depth of rolling blue-sky on a crystal clear day. In the foreground we see trees and the local flora fauna that lies below in the valley. Ostrander Lake, approximately 10 miles to the south, feeds these falls and I can’t help but wonder if these falls were also viewed as a source of water for area settlers. Bridalveil Falls are not fed by the same water source as the other falls in this area. The Ahwanchee Tribe lived within this area at the time Bierstadt painted this and other scenes including meeting places of the tribe within the Yosemite Valley. As Albert paints these scenes we see the careful detail he places into the most important parts of the picture. Albert is painting these for pleasure and to sell to the settled communities back east so they can have a piece of the west, however we see how he follows a somewhat sacred path, painting areas important to the Native Americans living there at the time and places important to the settlers and miners at the time. Bridal Veil Falls is and has always been seen as the gateway to the great Yosemite Valley as it is one of the first waterfalls you will see while entering the valley. From this view, Cathedral rocks would be behind the falls as Bierstadt captures all of his Yosemite works with perfect detail and precision. If I compare his paintings with photos I and others have taken, his paintings prove he spent much time perfecting these views. I enjoy seeing how Bierstadt captures the vast space of this enormous mass of land. This painting represents the entering of what is known as The Yosemite Valley. The country at this time was expanding westward with great force but it was difficult. Bierstadt found a life in traveling to the west and returning to the east with grand paintings of his western encounters. He was known for detailed work but was also know to spice it up a bit so the eastern folk could see the west as a little grander than it truly was. This is one of Bierstadt’s most researched works as it is oil on paper, mounted on canvas. One important item about this piece and the others Bierstadt painted from his first visit to Yosemite in 1863 to his later visits, is the fact that they were used in legislation that benefitted us all. In 1864, legislation went up designating Yosemite as parkland given to the state of California. In 1890, Yosemite became a National Park thanks to Bierstadt and his wonderful records of beauty. Bierstadt was now a big part of the Magna Carta or the Westward Expansion thanks to his wonderful works of art. His use of shadows on the rock face and within the trees makes depth. You feel as though you can stroll into the trees ahead. The trees by scale to the mountain show that the waterfall is at least a mile in the distance. This painting also shows the actual original “gates” to the park as the waterfall is the entrance. To the left of the falls we see El Capitan and in the Distance We See Half Dome. All three of these mountains are very realistic in this view and can be compared to photos.
Miners in the Sierras, Charles Christian Nahl, 1851-1852, From the collection of: Smithsonian American Art Museum
In this painting, “Miners in the Sierras,” we see what westward expansion was all about in the beginning, The Gold Rush. This painting from 1851-1852 was created by Charles Christian Nahl and is oil on canvas. It resides at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Within this painting, Nahl is describing what the life of a gold man was like. We se men, in good health, digging a trench next to a stream. The stream is the main focal point as it cuts through the Sierra Nevada Mountains. The river stands higher than the men showing it is of the utmost importance as it reflects the sun, giving it a feeling of flowing water. The men seem to be using basic tools of the time to cut through the earth. The shovels filled with dirt and soot go into the trough where the stream seems to divert into and shoot off into another stream. The men are obviously panning for gold with this makeshift sieve system. The men are in scale with the mountains and trees and shading is used all over the painting to add depth. The color scheme remains very neutral however two of the men are wearing bright red shirts which makes me wonder if they are the ones in charge? Many settlers in the late 1800’s were panning for gold. Many gave up everything they had to move west and to start panning hoping the whispers of gold they heard come true. This brought hard times as money was tight yet needed. Men traveled tirelessly hoping for more, something better. Nahl captures this belief of hard work in his painting. The sunny day makes me think these men are in for the big score, as history shows us that many of them did.
Among the Sierra Nevada, California, Albert Bierstadt, 1868, From the collection of: Smithsonian American Art Museum
Bierstadt created one of his largest and most beautiful works in 1968 and this work is known as “Among the Sierra Nevada, California.” Bierstadt, being the traveler he was, was one of the biggest purveyors of exploring the western mountains and within this oil on canvas portrait, Beirstadt creates a construct or a union, of the most beautiful characteristic features of you will see within the Sierra Nevada’s. He created the American ideal for what our scenery ought t be. Bierstadt created this painting in Rome and then it traveled through Europe making its way to America. Folks in Europe and even on the Eastern coast of the US, saw Bierstadt’s paintings and actually believed this is what the western mountains look like. Bierstadt did get criticism however as he was told his image of the river within this painting is all wrong as it is not typographically correct. At the same instance however, Bierstadt was praised for showing all the resources the west had to offer such as game, lumber, fishing, water, gold, etc. People saw the west as a majestic place as they could not get there but Bierstadt’s travels allowed them to be there in a sense when he would create these masterpieces. The highest peaks seem hazy and far away as though they are in the heavens, however their snowy caps supply the water to the river below. The river glimmers in the sun and is portrayed as very clean water, glacial type water. The water also supports many animals and marine life as the gather to drink, swim and hunt. The forests and water supply are bountiful within this picture. I feel Bierstadt uses his classic renaissance training when he painted this as it almost seems similar to the portraits of god we see. The sun breaking through the clouds casting majestic rays upon the life and rock below seems almost holy or other worldly. It is very god like and very powerful. The use of color and shadows to create a sense of light is astonishing. When you look at this painting it seems so much is unexplored in the mountains yet everything you need is in the valley thanks to the mountains. Too me this almost represents the circle of life and shows there is a place for humans here, however the forest shall remain untouched. This is one of the few places that has not been pillaged by machines and greedy corporations tearing out all the trees and extinguishing life as we know it, making species extinct. This is god’s country, the American Dream. Bierstadt captured it best in my eyes. I’ve seen these mountains many a time in person as everyone should. After visiting the Sierra Nevada’s take a look at Bierstadt’s paintings once again. It’s impossible to not feel the emotion you felt when you first saw these mountains. I can only imagine what folks in Europe in the late 1800’s felt when seeing such a majestic sight. It’s hard to believe only a few were able to travel and see this wonderful world we live in.
In Midwinter, Filippo Carcano, 1909/1909, From the collection of: Fondazione Cariplo
“In Midwinter,” is an oil on canvas work created by Filippo Carcano in 1909. This work is not of the Sierra Nevada range, however I included it for yet another reason. While Bierstadt and others where traveling west to the Majestic Mountains of California, others were painting mountains and their faces in other parts of the world. This painting portrays 1 of two paintings that show a view of glaciers in the Upper Engadin Valley located in the Swiss Alps. This painting represents winter in this area and is quiet similar to the mountains of the west. However, in this painting, Filippo Carcano, uses a method slightly different from the others. We see Carcano emphasizing the light in front of us where the snow lies thick and untouched. Lines are used to create a movement within the painting. Looking in the foreground the rock on the left leads us with lines to look towards the path, where the light is. The trees are freshly laid with snow and as we focus on the path the distance seems to disappear. The painting seems as though it is layered as we can see three different planes. We see the foreground clearly as its lit well by the sun. The back two layers fade out. If we focus in the distance the two foreground layers fade out. And if we look in the abyss that is the point between foreground and background, we get lost in the middle while the back and front lose focus. In this work Carcano used thick dabs of pure color on an untreated canvas which also gives this painting texture and a look all it’s own. This created more depth and made this one of the most prized depictions of mountains in it’s time.
29c Jim Beckwourth stamp, United States Postal Service, 1994-10-18, From the collection of: Smithsonian's National Postal Museum
Even today we celebrate those who traveled west to make this country the great place it is today. I don't agree with 'How" we got this land, but I appreciate that we don't forget. This is a stamp by the U.S. Post Office issued in 1994. It shows, James Pierson Beckwourth, c.1798-1866. James was a African American pioneer mountain man and scout and was one of the first explorers of Beckwourth Pass in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
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