Beauty & Bounty, which recently opened at the Seattle Art Museum, presents a broad range of American landscape painting and photography from the 19th and early 20th centuries. The exhibit aims to highlight the artistic fascination with the bucolic splendor of the United States while also emphasizing the political roles these works played in our nation’s development. The press release and wall texts explain that the works of art included in Beauty & Bounty were used to increase nationalism and encourage expansion westward. The show offers a powerful sampling of landscape art, yet the works vary too greatly in date and style to provide a unified presentation of the 19th century artist as political and social force.
The introduction to the exhibit shows three dramatic works by Albert Bierstadt, the German born artist who made trips to the American west coast with surveying teams. Other artists in the show went on similar trips, and like Bierstadt, their paintings would be used to provide romantic depictions of the frontier. The second room focuses on landscapes between the east coast and the Rockies. Winslow Homer’s An Adirondack Lake, depicts the profound stillness of the northeast, unspoiled by civilization. Thomas Cole’s portrayal of a New England coast, located on an adjoining wall, contrasts strongly with Homer’s subtle glaze work. Cole paints rocks with juicy layers of umber and black and the water with thick saturated blues. Homer’s lake is subtle and meant to be pondered, Cole’s is to be feared. Fascination with landscape rather than political underpinnings unite the two.
The following rooms showcase the Rockies and beyond displaying two of the exhibition’s most dramatic works, Grand Canyon of Arizona at Sunset and Grand Canyon of Yellowstone by Thomas Moran. His spectacular composition and warm color palette were so well received that they were used to help make Yellowstone the first national park. In contrast, the pieces in the adjoining room, landscapes of the Pacific Northwest, are soft and contemplative portrayals that make heavy use of glazing and light washes. The drastic differences in style again give a sense of fragmentation and make it difficult to draw connections between the works.
The show’s centerpiece, Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast (1870) epitomizes theatricality with its grand scale (52.5” x 82”) and thick red drapery that hangs at the entrance to the gallery. In this work, foreboding storm clouds gather along the coastline while waves violently crash against an outcropping of rocks. A break in the clouds reveals a column of light that shines down on fishermen pulling their canoes from the water. This piece along with the Moran’s, make the show worth seeing.
In the century that spans the dates of this exhibition, artistic movements came and went, the geographic line of the “frontier” changed several times, and the photo rose to prominence. It is a large undertaking to explore the political themes of westward expansion and nationalism through such a diverse collection of works. Nevertheless, Beauty & Bounty is a great opportunity to view rarely seen landscape works done by masterful painters.
Beauty & Bounty is on view at the Seattle Art Museum until September 11th.