What is the role of a visual artist?
Most painters, sculptors, photographers, filmmakers, dancers, musicians and architects don’t create or perform only for themselves. By choosing to share their work with the larger world they are inviting public engagement.
One of the giants whose perspective helped to shatter America’s myth of Manifest Destiny—of an infinite landscape there to be exploited in the name of God without regard given to limits—was Albert Bierstadt. In Cody, Wyoming, through the end of September, there is a remarkable exhibition of Bierstadt’s work.
Bierstadt’s paintings are regarded as nothing less than a national art treasure. Scenes from his corpus are displayed at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in the White House, and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, as well as numerous other galleries in the U.S. and abroad. That the exhibition, “Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West,” premiered at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West’s Whitney Western Art Museum in little Cody is testament to the unlikely global prominence of the venue.
Having seen the show twice, I will say this: the grouping of works is, in a way, both mind-bending and spellbinding, for it puts us into the mind frame of Bierstadt himself.
The German-American (1830-1902) came West in the 1860s and kept returning through what was considered the last gasps of “the frontier.” While he observed almost ineffable wonder and natural beauty, Bierstadt also saw unspeakable acts—government-sponsored genocide committed against the indigenous people of this continent, wholesale slaughter of bison, and clearing lands of wildlife to eliminate predators and competitors for grass with cattle and sheep.
The Buffalo Bill Center of the West is to be commended for boldly using art as a platform for advancing a new discussion.
The federal government’s deliberate war of extermination against native people and bison represents a long shadow—an unremovable stain—in our national psyche. And yet it is only by confronting the shadow and trying to make sense of it that illumination can be achieved.
Bierstadt’s masterworks, assembled in “Witness to a Changing West,” convey a visual narrative and reveal his own agonizing struggle to highlight the tragedies. At the same time, his romantic panoramas of the Greater Yellowstone region—especially the valleys around Wyoming’s Wind River Range—as well as his epics like views of Yosemite Valley in California, are visions for the ages.
One of the most famous paintings in U.S. history is Bierstadt’s 1888 work, “Last of the Buffalo.” There were two companion versions rendered. One hangs at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. As for the other? It’s in the permanent collection at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and is showcased in the exhibition.
The Buffalo Bill also has one of the original sketches that informed it; the epic was inspired by Bierstadt’s visit to the Wind Rivers in Greater Yellowstone. “Last of the Buffalo,” according to the National Gallery of Art, is considered Bierstadt’s “last great western painting.”
Thanks to the curators, the code Bierstadt was communicating is revealed and explained. Peter Hassrick, an eminent scholar on Western art, is also author of a companion book, “Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West,” a signed copy of which can be purchased through the museum.
A description of the book reads: “This volume takes a major step in reappraising Bierstadt’s contributions by reexamining the artist through a new lens. It shows how Bierstadt conveyed moral messages through his paintings, often to preserve the dignity of Native peoples and call attention to the tragic slaughter of the American bison. More broadly, the book reconsiders the artist’s engagement with contemporary political and social debates surrounding wildlife conservation in America, the creation and perpetuation of national parks, and the prospects for the West’s indigenous peoples.”
So, what is the role of artist? Bierstadt set a high standard for what is possible as witness.
Autumn is the glorious season in Greater Yellowstone, the time when locals, having been bombarded with visiting guests and having abstained from venturing into the crowded national parks, claim the serene peace of the region back again. Often, it means setting out on daytrips. You could spend thousands of dollars flying cross country to see Bierstadts in the nation’s capital or New York City. For the cost of a tank of gas and a little more, you can instead soak in a rare assemblage of Bierstadts as moving as any you’ll experience in a lifetime.
Best of all, the exhibition is overlapping with the 37th Annual Buffalo Bill Art Show and Sale, Sept. 21-22. A note to readers in the Bozeman area: Hassrick is giving a lecture on the exhibition at the Museum of the Rockies on Tuesday, Sept. 18, at 7 p.m. at an event sponsored by the Bozeman Public Library. Don’t miss it.
Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.