Sunday, February 1, 2015

Westward The Course of the Empire Takes Its Way: 19th Century Painters and Photographers

This week we talked about the origins of Western expansion, Manifest Destiny, the destruction and exploitation of the redwoods, and photography vs. painting in the American West.

Carleton Watkins, Grizzly Giant, c. 1865-66

Albert Bierstadt, Giant Redwood Trees of California, 1874

In the articles Introduction: The Golden Meane and The Great Desert, Andrew Menard talks about the origins of Western state lines, and their reliance on longitude and latitude for their shape as opposed to the geographical shape of the Eastern states. A large reason for the square shape of the Western states is a direct cause of Thomas Jefferson's hurried attempts to have the land explored, and mapping out areas before their initial exploration. In class discussion we talked about how Manifest Destiny played into the action of acquiring the land prior to exploring and mapping it based off the land itself. Many people concluded that Manifest Destiny was the main cause for this quick and hasty mapping method.


John Melish, Map of the United States, 1816 (image via)

We discussed the way technological innovations influenced photographers like Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge was known for his work with the Stanford horse photographs where he captured the various stages of a horse trotting. Along with his innovative work with the speed of photography, Muybridge also worked in the American West. Many of his photographs focused on observing reflections of things like mountains on water. In the article River of Shadows, author Rebecca Solnit discussed the way our relationship with time changed with new technologies like the railroad and photography. All these things allowed us to be in different places, either in a photograph in the past or physically by traveling. These were ways to escape the present. In the class discussion we talked about how fast our world moves today in comparison to how the world moved in the 19th century. Along these same lines we talked about how the natural sublime and the technological sublime interact with one another and if that relationship is positive or negative.

Eadweard Muybridge, The Horse in Motion, 1878

Eadweard Muybridge, Mirror Lake, Valley of Yosemite, 1872

Another photographer we looked at was Timothy O'Sullivan. O’Sullivan began his photographic career at an early age. Some of his most well known work comes from his time photographing the Civil War. He did a lot of work in the American West as well. His work was often associated with the transcendentalist movement because of his use of simple, abstracted spaces that were often very meditative. His images did not often contain figures, but when they did they were being swallowed by their environment to emphasize the vast, sweeping landscapes of the West.

Timothy O'Sullivan, Vermillion Creek Canyon, 1867

Timothy O'Sullivan, Pyramid and  Tufa Domes, Pyramid Lake, Nevada, 1878

Painters and photographers were often pitted against one another due to the variation between their works. Photographers tended to include things like railroads and buildings while painters excluded those details and focused on more on nature. Photographers also tended to be a little more dedicated to the exploration of the land. It was not uncommon for painters to take trips out to the west and created sketches or very quick paintings and then travel back east to create the actual painting. Photographers on the other hand were in it for the long haul and it was not uncommon for them to take many trips out West or to even move out West. A quote that covers a lot of the reading and topics in The Kiss of Enterprise is, “The message of many studio paintings was that the natural and the technological sublime were compatible, that the west could endure as both a symbol and resource.” Artists started traveling west, two examples of artists that we discussed in class and read about in the article, are Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Hill, they both combined and edited the field sketches, color studies, and photographs they had gathered, to produce paintings that were propaganda to encourage others to travel out west. They would create these places that did not exist, but were different beautiful parts of western landscape combined.


Joseph H. Becker, Snow Sheds on the Central Pacific Railroad in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, 1869

We also discussed the construction of the snow sheds, snow was making it impossible for the trains to travel across the tracks and so they proposed snow sheds, this let the trains pass through the snow tunnels. 37 miles of snow sheds were built eventually, costing more than 2 million dollars. The total build of all of these snow sheds used so much lumber.

Thomas A. Ayers, The Mammoth Tree Grove, Calaveras County, 1855

We also touched on the trees out West and the controversy of protecting them. Lincoln was involved in signing the bill to protect Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove. Even though he made the efforts to save this area, other areas even right next to these locations were not being saved. A great observation made by Ludlow was, “at the same time tourists were traveling great distances to see the giant trees, others were intent on turning them into shingles and grape stakes.”

We talked about propaganda, and how the painters and photographers joined works to bring people out to the beautiful west, though some people did not believe what people were saying about the sizes of the trees. To promote the west and to bring “national pride” the government cut down a three hundred foot sequoia, right outside of the parks protected area and displayed this tree in Chicago. Those who had not believed the actual sizes of the trees, could then witness the size in person. Another advertising method that we touched on was the Wawona Tree, being used on the front and back of brochures, to promote Travel to California by railroad.

Sarah Lassiter, Grif Williams and Kyla Tighe

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