Have you ever lost yourself inside a beautiful picture? Whether a fiery sunset, a perfect beach, or a stellar cosmos, there is always a scene that leaves us breathless, wishing we were inside the picture, not outside looking in.
There are a few works that draw me in without fail, and one of them is a breathtaking view of the California landscape: Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, by Albert Bierstadt. Impressive vertical waterfalls stream from sheer cliffs and snowy mountains, falling into a pristine river. The glassy water reflects the brilliant light that radiates from the heavens, adding a special glow to the scene. In the foreground, tiny deer emerge from a lush forest to drink at the water’s edge, their size strategically highlighting the unbelievable, imposing height of the mountain range.
Painted in 1868 at the peak of America’s Manifest Destiny craze, Sierra Nevada represents an idealized landscape that glorifies the rugged natural beauty of the USA. The 1800s was a time of expansion and exploration for the US. From Lewis and Clark’s famous journey to the California Gold Rush, the West was a territory full of adventure and profit, danger and excitement, a point of national pride.
At the same time, Romanticism as an artistic movement had swept Europe and found particular popularity in Great Britain. The intense emotional power of nature and its relationship with humanity found great appeal in the US, where people were still discovering America’s vast natural resources. Inspired by British Romantic artists such as John Constable and J. M. W. Turner, a group of American artists such as Thomas Cole and Albert Bierstadt became part of the “Hudson River School.” They often produced landscapes of great beauty and power, like Sierra Nevada, and tended to idealize nature and present an idyllic view of human’s relationship with the great outdoors.
Their all-too-perfect vision of nature glossed over the realities of the Industrial Revolution, agricultural expansion, and the exploitation of natural resources that accompanied the territorial growth of the US. Nevertheless, it also expresses Americans’ pride for their beautiful treasures of nature, a sentiment that has echoed throughout our history, expressed in our National Anthem and in the founding of our National Parks.
As I lose myself wandering through this painting, I feel grateful that people can still lose themselves among the mountains, rivers, and forests of this amazing continent. For all the glamour and excitement of city life, I love the peace and tranquility of uncorrupted nature. William Wordsworth captured this sentiment best upon his return to Tintern Abbey:
Five years have past; five summers, with the length
Of five long winters! and again I hear
These waters, rolling from their mountain-springs
With a soft inland murmur. Once again
Do I behold these steep and lofty cliffs,
That on a wild secluded scene impress
Thoughts of more deep seclusion; and connect
The landscape with the quiet of the sky…
These beauteous forms,
Through a long absence, have not been to me
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye;
But oft, in lonely rooms, and ‘mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet,
Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart;
And passing even into my purer mind…
– William Wordsworth
“Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey”
on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798
This is my personal vision. What images would you get lost in?