Beauty & Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration

A new exhibit called Beauty & Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration just opened at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) featuring American landscape painters in the 19th century.  What better way to start off the long holiday weekend celebrating Independence Day than by going to see this exhibit on Friday night?  Unfortunately my friends and I got off to a late start and we didn't have as long as we would like in the museum before they closed, however in that short time I did see a lot and also found out some of the reasons for painting landscapes at that time.  I also learned of some new favorite painters such as William Keith, Grafton Tyler Brown and pioneer daughter Emily Inez Denny whose view of the San Juans was among my favorite paintings.

I went from room to room gasping in awe as I saw each painting and wishing I had more time to spend in front of them.  While the artists in this exhibit weren’t working in one specific style there were definitely commonalities in the work.  American landscape painting from this time period can best be described as majestic.  It is bittersweet to look at the paintings knowing some of these landscapes aren’t there anymore but for those that remain these paintings would inspire anyone to want to visit all the places depicted.

SAM’s website states this about the exhibit:

“When the first surveyors went westward, they took painters and photographers with them to create images that would fire the collective imagination of a nation and draw emigrants westward.
Albert Bierstadt's painting of Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast for example, was deemed a virtuous enterprise for attempting to transport viewers to a still unknown region of the country. We tend to think of landscape art as a record of an artist's personal, intimate experience in nature, but in the nineteenth century, artists painted the American landscape as a response to the enthusiasms of their audience, too. They led us to remote places of natural splendor and abundance, and we followed, leaving our own marks upon the land.”

Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast, Albert Bierstadt, 1870, Seattle Art Museum

I have always loved the German born painter Albert Bierstadt and his panoramic and sweeping views of landscapes.  This work at SAM has always fascinated me; I now know Bierstadt painted this without seeing the Puget Sound which is why it is so unusual.  The landscape is dramatic, but it doesn’t actually exist.  Bierstadt based it off a combination of the Atlantic coast and mountainous areas he had seen.

However the rest of the paintings give an accurate view of American vistas from coast to coast.  There were examples of the rocky shores of Maine, Niagra Falls, several mountain ranges (Catskills, Adirondacks, and Rockies), the Grand Canyon, the Yosemite Valley and the Pacific Northwest among others.

There was also a sizable collection of landscape photography and if I hadn’t been ushered out by the museum guards (yes we were the last to leave the building) I would have seen that too, but I’ll be back.  This exhibit runs from June 30 to September 11, 2011 and has an accompanying catalog.  Also, there is a concurrent program running on Public TV station KCTS 9 called Land of Beauty and Bounty.

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