Visions of the American West

CHAPTER 3: Painting the American sublime

For artists such as Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, and Thomas Hill, the American West was a vast frontier of epic scale, with seemingly endless horizons and equally infinite possibilities. These artists’ common belief in sublime experience—a concept borne from German Romanticism—is made manifest in their landscapes. Immanuel Kant, whose philosophies deeply impacted the German Romantics, distilled the idea into a simple distinction: “Whereas the beautiful is limited, the sublime is limitless.” Grandiose and luminous, these compositions depict humankind as small and diminutive in the face of nature. By employing dramatic, operatic proportions, artists aimed to evoke the divine through the natural world—a central tenet of the sublime.

Indian Canoe

Albert Bierstadt
Solingen, Germany, 1830 - 1902, Irving, New York

Indian Canoe
69.2 cm x 90.8 cm (27 1/4 in. x 35 3/4 in.)
Gift of C.R. Smith, 1976

During his training at the Arts Academy of Düsseldorf, Albert Bierstadt engaged deeply with the spiritual and sensory tenets of German Romanticism. The movement, both intellectual and aesthetic, emphasized sublime or transcendent experience—a concept that lent itself well to depicting the American West. In landscapes like "Indian Canoe," Bierstadt aimed to convey a sense of the divine through nature. The diminutive figure set amidst the vast sky and towering trees has no individual traits, and serves as a stand-in for the awing experience of the sublime. The sun setting behind a lone Indian may also be read as a signal of the looming decline of Native Americans’ traditional way of life.

The Golden Hour

Thomas Moran
Lancashire, England, 1837 - 1926, Santa Barbara, California

The Golden Hour
41.9 cm x 52.4 cm x 7.6 cm (16 1/2 in. x 20 5/8 in. x 3 in.)
Bequest of C.R. Smith, 1991

Thomas Moran’s romanticized view of the towering cliffs of the Green River in southwestern Wyoming is notable for the operatic power of its imagery, despite the picture’s modest scale. An impossibly fiery sunset suffuses the jagged outcroppings in a golden light that exaggerates the glories and grandeur of nature. Americans back east were eager to discover the uninhabited western landscape through paintings like this and through reproductions. To make an even more compelling picture, Moran took certain liberties with features of the undeniably spectacular landscapes he observed on his trips to Wyoming during the summers of 1871 and 1872. Loosely and impressionistically painted, The Golden Hour is neither a major nor a typical work by Moran, but its magical intensity successfully communicates the artist’s deep fondness for the first western site he ever sketched.

Image credit:
William Gilbert Gaul
The Land of the Free, circa 1900 (detail)
Oil on canvas
The Blanton Museum of Art, The University of Texas at Austin
Gift of C.R. Smith, 1976