Art and the Far West: 'chasms without and chasms within'

Since Capt. Vancouver in 1792, artists and painters have tried to depict and understand "Yosemites in the soul." Here's a survey of major artists and shifting modes of perceiving the colossal and awesome landscapes of the West.

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Albert Bierstadt's Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast is on exhibit at the SAM.

Since Capt. Vancouver in 1792, artists and painters have tried to depict and understand "Yosemites in the soul." Here's a survey of major artists and shifting modes of perceiving the colossal and awesome landscapes of the West.

This is the second of three essays by the author about nature and the art of the Far West, corresponding with a current show at the Seattle Art Museum, "Beauty and Bounty."

From the beginning, people who have visited the West’s iconic places have tended to see more than has met their eyes. “Much of the California landscape has tended to present itself as metaphoric,” Joan Didion writes in Where I Was From, “even as litany: the redwoods (for a thousand years in my sight are but as yesterday), the Mojave (in the midst of life we are in death), the coast at Big Sur, Mono Lake, the great vistas of the Sierra, especially those of the Yosemite Valley, which, [California historian] Kevin Starr has pointed out, ‘offered Californians an objective correlative for their ideal sense of themselves: a people animated by heroic imperatives.’ Thomas Starr King saw Yosemite in 1860 and went back to the First Unitarian Church of San Francisco determined to inspire 'Yosemites in the soul.’ "

“Upon the heights, Clarence King [a New England-born, Yale-educated geologist and mountain climber, who first visited California in the 1860s, more than a decade before he became the first director of the U.S. Geological Survey] conceived of himself as poised above chaos, as having defied chasms without and chasms within,” Starr writes in Americans and the California Dream. “On the same and even more lofty peaks, [John] Muir saw himself as soaring over a singing creation, hearing the music which the ages had prepared.”

A century later, people were less likely to use religious metaphors but just as likely to invoke religious places, fighting to preserve the West’s last unprotected "cathedral forests." In those forests, over which many recent environmental battles have been fought, the architectural metaphors really work. You find the upward sweep of the trunks, like the soaring of Gothic arches; the sense of vertical space; the glowing color of a backlit branch, like illuminated stained glass; the silence.

The historian Simon Schama points out in Landscape and Memory that just as we see the Gothic in living forests, we can see living forests in the Gothic: the characteristic pointed arch of Gothic architecture mirrors — and may be patterned on — the shape made by branches that have been bent into archways. Schama also discusses the widespread and pervasive place of sacred trees in pre-Christian religions and the persistence of tree imagery in early and not-so-early Christianity. As he notes, Americans in the mid-19th century saw the newly discovered groves of redwoods and sequoias as holy places, and subscribed fully to the idea of forests as natural places of worship. Why should a forest need an architectural metaphor? It doesn't. But the memory of cathedrals adds resonance; it enhances the experience — although it may diminish the direct perception of trees.

In the late 19th century, when the nation thought of Washington at all, it may not have envisioned cathedrals, but it clearly thought in terms of trees. J.W. Robinson was appointed to take the proposed state constitution to Washington D.C. for approval in 1889, and secure from President Benjamin Harrison a formal proclamation of statehood. Thirty years later, he recalled meeting with Harrison, Congressman John L. Wilson, and Secretary of State James G. Blaine, from the old lumbering state of Maine. Blaine “asked me what was the greatest quantity of merchantable timber I had ever known to be on, say, 160 acres in Washington,” Robinson wrote, “and I answered him by saying that in the Land Court I [had] represented a timber claimant as against an agricultural claimant in [a case in] which the issue was whether the land was chiefly valuable for timber or agriculture, in which the witnesses testified, after examination of the timber, that it contained 36,000,000 board feet of first-class merchantable timber, and President Harrison said, ‘Well, that much timber could hardly grow on 160 acres,’ and Secretary Blaine, with [a] twinkle in his eye, said: ‘Mr. President, that would depend upon how high it grew.’”

A century later, people christened the remnants of those great forests “old growth” — trees that had started growing before European-Americans arrived and started cutting the forests. In 1889, no one would have bothered using the term. Not all the trees growing in 19th-century Western forests were old; some had sprouted just recently, after swathes of forest had been mowed down by windstorms or avalanches or burned up by fire. But the old trees were the only ones anyone bothered sending to the sawmills.

In 1876, the management of the Port Blakely Mill on Bainbridge Island wrote to Dan Turner, farther south on Puget Sound, asking him to “get us out all you possibly can of good nice, clear [i.e., knot-free] sticks from 50 to 70 feet long. . . . We will want 100 of the sticks.” In the 1970s, a friend of mine was a contractor renovating some of the historic late-19th-century buildings around Pioneer Square. One building on which he worked had obviously been a whorehouse, with floor space divided into cribs by hastily-built walls. Despite the fact that those separating walls had obviously been thrown up as cheaply as possible, he found that the lumber used in them was far better than anything he could buy at any price 90 years later.

From the perspective of the late 20th century, though, “old growth” had become rare enough to merit its own name — and to become the focus of bitter conflicts. Everyone on all sides of the late-20th-century political and legal battle over preserving the Northern Spotted Owl and other old-growth-dependent species in the Pacific Northwest realized that the owl itself was just a legal surrogate for those old forests in which it lived. The fight to save the owl was really a fight to save the Northwest’s last remaining unprotected old forests and the ecosystems they supported on federal land.

But during the years of legal and political maneuvering, the term “old growth” fell into some disfavor. The various plans for saving the owls and other species tended to speak, more technically, of “late successional” forests — i.e., to focus less on age per se than on a stage of development. Activists, on the other hand, spoke increasingly of “ancient forests” — not “old” and in decline but “ancient,” and therefore parallel to the monuments of Greece and Rome.

This wasn’t the first time nature in the West had offered parallels to the icons of European culture. For many educated 19th-century Americans, the echoes of cathedrals and other European monuments found in the Western landscape were anything but subliminal. Those places evoked not only the spiritual but also the aesthetic values — and the cultural cachet — of European art. “The United States agonized in the shadow of European standards,” Alfred Runte, the environmental historian who has taught at the University of Washington and who lost to Greg Nickels in the Seattle mayoral election of 2005, writes in National Parks: The American Experience. “Unlike the Old World, the new nation lacked an established past, particularly as expressed in art, architecture, and literature. In the Romantic tradition nationalists looked to scenery as one form of compensation.”

“Redemption,” Runte suggests, “lay in westward expansion." The Mexican War gave the United States California and the Southwest, and also gave a hint of cultural significance to people who had no Chartres, no Westminster Abbey, no Parthenon. “Much as Europe retained custody of the artifacts of Western Civilization," Runte writes, "so in the West the United States had [an] opportunity to protect a truly convincing semblance of historical continuity through landscape. . . . The likes of Yosemite Valley and Yellowstone . . . needed no apologies. [B]y the 1860s many thoughtful Americans had embraced the wonderlands of the West as replacements for man-made marks of achievement. The agelessness of monumental scenery instead of the past accomplishments of Western civilization was to become the visible symbol of continuity and stability in the new nation. . . . The modern discovery of Yosemite Valley and the Sierra redwoods, in 1851 and 1852, respectively, provided the first believable evidence since Niagara Falls that the United States had a valid claim to cultural recognition through natural wonders.”

The landscape acquired a cultural significance, a religious overtone, that helped shape the way Americans saw themselves, and the way others saw them. They saw it in a cultural context, originally European, that over the preceding century had predisposed people to find aesthetic value in wild, as opposed to cultivated landscapes. Captain George Vancouver, who explored along the Northwest Coast in the late 18th century, naming many of the landforms around the lower Columbia River and Puget Sound, had been shaped by an earlier aesthetic.

Vancouver’s “ten-day exploration along the mainland coast of Georgia Strait [north of Vancouver, British Columbia] sharpened the division between Vancouver and his younger officers and midshipmen,” Jonathan Raban writes in Passage to Juneau. “Probing the great steep-sided inlets of Howe Sound and Jervics, with their high snowcaps, thundering waterfalls, and stunted pines on rocky ledges, Captain Van saw a landscape that was ugly, intimidating, inhospitable, and useless. He instinctively recoiled from the sight of the dizzy precipice and the toppling crag; affronts to his taste for order. . . . In this, as in much else, Captain Van was out of step.

"The [kind of] landscape he found merely depressing roused great excitement among the Grand Tourists, who felt that they were actually entering the awe-inspiring realm of the eighteenth-century Sublime — a word never far from the midshipmen’s lips as they rowed, in a perpetual dark twilight, between beetle-browed cliffs, while the sun lit up snowfields thousands of feet above their heads.. . . .By the 1770s, the rage for the Sublime was in full swing in the English countryside, where landscape gardeners contrived delicious terrors for their patrons. . . . This was the movement that had passed Vancouver by.

"Here on the Northwest coast, where the ocean sucked and grumbled at the bottom of precipices, . . . Captain Van was nearly at the heart of the modish Sublime, but nothing in the landscape stirred him to poetry. . . . The midshipmen’s own response to the landscape is read most clearly in their drawings. . . . [which] are full of images of the Sublime: great crags and precipices; snowcapped mountaintops wreathed in coronae of swirling mist; lone eagles in the sky; the brooding ocean.”

Nearly a century later, Albert Bierstadt and other landscape painters used huge canvases to capture what they perceived as sublime in the mountainous West. Joan Didion has little use for Bierstadt’s exaggeration of the already-grand scale of scenery he found in the Far West. She writes that “Albert Bierstadt saw Yosemite in 1863 and came back to do the grandiose landscapes that made him for a dozen years the most popularly acclaimed painter in America. ‘Some of Mr. Bierstadt’s mountains swim in a lustrous, pearly mist,’ Mark Twain observed with some acerbity, ‘which is so enchantingly beautiful that I am sorry the Creator hadn’t made it instead of him, so that it would always remain there.’”

Is Bierstadt’s view of the mountains distorted? Of course. A Bierstadt image may have the visual trappings of realism, but it’s fiction — real elements assembled to suit his fantasy of place — and besides, it's painting. He emphasizes some elements, short-changes others. His approach to the western landscape seems no more distorted than, say, El Greco’s long, writhing human bodies or — to take work more nearly contemporary with Bierstadt’s — the elongated human forms in John Singer Sargent’s late-19th-century portraits. The human body does not have such proportions. Neither do the mountains. But it you don’t elongate the mountains, how do you reproduce the sense of verticality? If you don’t make the morning glow unnaturally tangible, how do you capture the mountain light?

We select and therefore idealize. Grand places really do look as we photograph or remember them — but only if we focus narrowly, exclude everything that does not enhance the basic image, wait for the right light.

And maybe, if we’re painters, we use a big canvas to get the right effect. “Bierstadt’s second trip west in 1863 led him to California, where he became intimate with perhaps his most familiar trademark — Yosemite Valley,” Runte writes. “In 1865, the 8-by-10-foot canvas [entitled The Rocky Mountains] commanded $25,000, then the highest sum ever awarded an American artist.. . . . Carleton E. Watkins . . . photographed Yosemite Valley and the Sierra redwoods as early as 1861. . . . his pictures also made the rounds of major galleries in the East. Bierstadt’s advantage . . . was his freedom to break with reality.”

Did the landscape stand for something else? Was it perceived as a physical expression of the way things were, or the way some people wanted them to be? Didion describes Bierstadt’s grand view from the Sierras looking down toward Donner Lake and contrasts the — perhaps embellished — grandeur of the scenery with the hidden but well-known horror of the place’s history, the fact that the Donner Party, prevented by the deep snows of an early mountain winter from crossing the pass from which Bierstadt saw this tableau, camped by the lake, had left the shore littered with bones, animal and human.

“Were not the divinely illuminated passes of Bierstadt’s Sierra meant to confirm the successful completion of our manifest destiny?” Didion asks. “Was it by chance that Collis P. Huntington [one of the “Big Four” California businessmen who built the western half of the first transcontinental railroad] commissioned Bierstadt to undertake a painting celebrating the domination of Donner Pass by the Central Pacific Railroad? Was not Bierstadt’s triumphalist Donner Lake from the Summit a willful revision to this point of the locale that most clearly embodied the moral ambiguity of the California settlement? This was the lesson drawn from the pass in question by one of the surviving children of the Donner Party, Virginia Reed, who wrote to her cousin: 'Oh, Mary, I have not wrote you half of the trouble we’ve had, but I have wrote you enough to let you know what trouble is. But thank God we are the only family that did not eat human flesh.'”

Bierstadt’s image of Donner Pass, created in the service of Huntington and perhaps Huntington’s view of Western history, was not the only piece of art that furthered the interests of a late-19th-century railroad builder. The railroad builders understood the uses not only of engineering and bribery but also of imagery to create a world from which they could profit.

The railroads were the quintessential big business of the mid- and late 19th century. Their lobbyists were the first to turn up in Washington, D.C. with suitcases full of money. Railroads bought and bullied concessions from governments large and small. In exchange for laying rails from the Great Lakes to Puget Sound, the Northern Pacific Railroad received 47 million acres of federal land, leaving a “checkerboard” pattern of alternating public and private land that has endured for more than a century, and putting into private hands the forests that formed the original Weyerhaeuser timber empire and other forests that in 1989 became the original holdings of Plum Creek, which has grown into the nation’s largest private landowner. “The generation between 1865 and 1895 was . . . mortgaged to the railroads,” wrote the historian Henry Adams, “and no one knew it better than the generation itself.”

But the effects of railroads and railroad builders on the landscape weren’t all bad. The Northern Pacific and its president in the early 1870s, Jay Cooke, played a critical role in persuading Congress to make Yellowstone the world’s first national park. Cooke, who had made a name and a fortune selling bonds for the U.S. government during the Civil War, took a major gamble when he acquired the not-yet-built Northern Pacific. “[H]e needed something fantastic to sell, a way to capture the public’s attention,” Rocky Barker explains in Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America. “Cooke first envisioned Yellowstone as a grand symbol for his new railroad, a scenic marvel to attract investment in the bonds needed to finance his expansion.”

“Ultimately,” Barker writes, “the Northern Pacific Railroad . . . engineered the political deals that led to setting aside Yellowstone for public use.” Cooke’s man Nathaniel P. Langford “worked closely with U.S. Representative William H. Clagett of Montana in writing the park bill.”

Perhaps most significantly, Cooke paid to have the government-sponsored Hayden expedition to Yellowstone during the summer of 1871 take along the landscape artist, Thomas Moran. “Jay Cooke . . . convinced Hayden to allow artist Thomas Moran [and the photographer, Thomas Henry Jackson] to tag along at Cooke’s expense,” Barker writes. "Hayden even allowed Cooke to cover the expenses of transporting his expedition west.”

Cooke knew what he was doing. Western imagery has often carried more weight in American culture and politics than western reality. The nation saw images of Yellowstone — just as it saw aesthetic distillations of other western landscapes- — before more than a handful of Americans had ever seen the real thing. The Congressmen of 1872 who voted to make Yellowstone the world’s first national park had never been there. Actually, most of the early national parks had to be taken on faith by most Americans until the masses got access to automobiles in the years after World War I.

“Yellowstone was not even a part of the United States,” write Ann and Myron Sutton in Yellowstone: a Century of the Wilderness Idea. “It was a distant entity far out beyond the plains and among the territories that were just being explored. . . . [T]he only way it was known at all was through Jackson’s photographs and Moran’s sketches.”

Lobbyists for a park showed Moran’s watercolors and Jackson’s majestic black-and-white photographs of waterfalls and canyons, geysers and peaks, to individual Congressmen. The paintings and photographs also hung in the Capitol rotunda and at the Smithsonian.

In Jackson’s albumen-print photographs, the landscape was a pattern of stark, dramatic light and dark, with dark pines scattered over pale rock, mist hovering below waterfalls and above rapids, the foaming white of a major waterfall forming an electric focal point. Moran’s paintings did not have the stark contrasts of the photographs. Instead, they showed tawny rocks with tints of rose or ocher, misty, dissolving horizons, the blues of distant mountains, which were sometimes echoed in the blues of river water, sky, the shadows on naked rock. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone appears as an austere, blued-ivory cleft.

“I have never seen any place like [Yellowstone], but I know from this picture that it exists,” Clarence Cook wrote in the New York Tribune of May 5, 1872, after he had seen Moran’s huge painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone hanging in the U.S. Capitol rotunda. a couple of months after Congress created the park. “This scene is stranger, grander and more abnormal than even the Valley of the Yosemite, but Mr. Moran’s pictures make doubts of its possibilities impossible.”

In the catalogue for an exhibit of Moran’s paintings assembled in 1997 by the National Gallery of Art and also shown in Tulsa and Seattle, Nancy K. Anderson writes that years after Yellowstone became a national park, the photographer “William Henry Jackson wrote that during the Yellowstone debate ‘the watercolors of Thomas Moran and the photographs of the Geology Survey [Jackson’s own] were the most important exhibits brought before the Committee.'"

Jackson quoted historian Hiram M. Chittenden’s supporting opinion. (Chittenden, a West-Point-trained officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, had a varied career. He not only wrote the first history of Yellowstone; he also built the great stone arch that still stands at Yellowstone’s northern entrance and the Chittenden Bridge over the Yellowstone River. As Seattle District Engineer in the early 20th century, he planned the ship canal between Lake Washington and Puget Sound; the Chittenden Locks, which raise and lower boats traveling between sound and lake, are named for him.) "They did a work which no other agency could do," Chittenden wrote, "and doubtless convinced every one who saw them that the regions where such wonders existed should be carefully preserved to the people forever.’”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan

Daniel Jack Chasan is an author, attorney, and writer of many articles about Northwest environmental issues.