Bierstadt Essay by Paula Panich
March 25, 2015
Albert Bierstadt’s ten-by-six-foot canvas, Donner Lake from the Summit, was commissioned by the railroad tycoon Collis P. Huntington in 1869 and unveiled in San Francisco in 1873. Although given to the New-York Historical Society decades later by Huntington’s philanthropist son, Archer, it is back in California until June as part of the exhibit Nature and the American Vision: The Hudson River School, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Huntington paid $17,000 for this enormous painting—roughly $315,000 today. But Donner Lake from the Summit was not just a commission from a rich man to a fashionable landscape artist of the Hudson River School. It was also a piece of visual reportage and propaganda—think of it as a sixty-foot billboard—designed to celebrate the conquest of the Rocky Mountains by the creators of the Central Pacific Railroad, of which he was one. A contemporary journalist described the painting as a tribute to the “great physical obstacles overcome by a triumph of well-directed science and mechanics."
The ten-thousand-foot-high summit overlooking Donner Lake was where the railroad builders—slashing, blasting, and spiking their way across the High Sierras—faced their greatest challenge. Linda S. Ferber, senior art historian at the historical society and former director of its museum, explains in the exhibition catalogue that nine tunnels were bored through granite and thirty-seven miles of snow sheds built during a particularly difficult and dangerous winter.
But Bierstadt’s stunning view of the Donner Pass, with its pellucid, pale blue lake, conveys a pastoral, almost mystical, vision of the landscape. On offer, instead of an overt celebration of engineering or industry, is a tribute to the beauty and scale of the prospect and the sunlight pouring from the heavens. And yet American ambitions are not absent from this vista. Landscape historian John Stilgoe suggests that for many nineteenth-century American landscape painters beauty and joy were “twinned with religion and patriotism.”
Human triumph is also implicitly alluded to by the painting’s title. The fate of the Donner Party, a group of pioneers forced by starvation into cannibalism and death in the brutal mountain winter of 1846–47, was still fresh in the public mind. This unparalleled and beckoning beauty, though, suggests that the days of such bitter trials are past. The lower left quadrant of the painting contains a barely visible sign of civilizing man: trees felled for construction. Equally easy to miss at the right is a pale, curving line along a ridge, representing the railroad itself, which symbolizes the conquest of the wilderness.
It is said that Collis Huntington was not pleased by such a subtle portrayal of his great enterprise, but he accepted the painting, and it was a hit with the public. The role of industry in taming the landscape certainly wasn’t lost on the admiring journalist who exclaimed, “So much slowness and hardship in the early days, so much rapidity and ease now.” A century-old policy of continental expansion had come to an end; now, Bierstadt’s painting suggested, the whole of the beautiful, young country was within reach at last. — Paula Panich