The Cover Section Editor: M. Therese Southgate,
MD, Senior Contributing Editor.
When, at the age of 29, the American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
made his first trip to the American West, he was nothing short of astounded.
Part of a government surveying team led by Colonel Frederick Lander, whose
task was to map an overland route to the Pacific coast, Bierstadt was in fact
so overwhelmed by the majesty, beauty, and sheer grandeur of the American
landscape that he got no farther west than Wyoming. There he left the team
and spent the summer sketching. That trip would be only the first of many
to the American West and the beginning of so many paintings that his name
became synonymous with the Rocky Mountains and with the Sierra Nevada, in
particular with the Yosemite Valley. Viewers, American and European alike,
were captivated. The public lionized him, and they backed up their admiration
in tangible ways: Bierstadt earned more from his painting than had any other
American artist before him. But there was a thorn in this idyllic garden:
the art critics were less than overwhelmed. Still, one, the art historian
E. P. Richardson, did offer a backhanded compliment. Bierstadt, he said, is
"a first-rate second-rate talent." Perhaps he is. But second-rate though his
talents may be, his subjects are not. They are second to none in evoking awe.
It is not a failure of talent so much as a mismatch between painter and nature:
nature will not be confined to a piece of canvas, no matter how skillful the
Southgate MT. Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite. JAMA. 2003;289(15):1894. doi:10.1001/jama.289.15.1894
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