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German Immigrant Painters 5

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American Landscape

The statement "the arts have always traveled westward" which Benjamin Franklin made in 1771 to the painter Charles Peale also proved true in the 19th Century.  Throughout the great westward migration, the arts followed right on the heels of the settlers.  As the population of the United States continued to grow, so the country's intellectual and artistic achievements increased.  In the older regions of the East there soon emerged an authentic, recognizable American school, the Hudson River School, which gave visible evidence of the spiritual independence and vitality of the young nation.  But this rapid growth was only made possible through the large influx of European artists and the high number of American artists who went to study in the great art centers of Europe.

Towards the middle of the '19th century the German immigrant painter's finest contributions were in landscape painting, an area where German art had a long and great tradition.  The same passionate love for land that drove German settlers by the hundred of thousands to cultivate the hostile wilderness of the ever-expanding Western frontiers, permeated the landscapes of Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), Paul Weber (1823-1916), Heinrich Vianden (1814-1899), Godfrey Frankenstein (1820-1873) and Cornelius Krieghoff (1812-1872).  They all took their inspiration from nature herself; but Bierstadt proved the most gifted in interpreting the unique majesty and spaciousness of the American panorama.  Bathing the magnificent vistas of the Rocky Mountains in luminous yet realistically rendered light effects, he captured the poetry of the American wilderness and brought the 19th century American landscape painting to a peak.  His large composite pictures, which he constructed from many small sketches, made during his travels to the West, have an eerie beauty of roaming space akin to the contemporary music of a Richard Wagner or Anton Bruckner.

Bierstad, who was born in Germany and brought to America as a small child, returned to Europe in 1853 to study art in Düsseldorf and Rome.  After his return to the United States in 1857 he made the first of his extended trips to the American West.

From these travels he returned to his studio in New York City with hundreds of on-the-spot sketches in oil on paper.  From these he composed his large paintings.  He soon became one of the most sought after and highly paid American artists of the 1860's.  Later, after America fell in love with French Impressionism, his luck changed His painting The Last of the Buffalo was refused exhibition in the American Pavilion in Paris in 1889.  Critics labeled his large, realistic canvases as old fashioned and ridiculous.  Today, Bierstadt is appreciated once more and his works are hung in the permanent collections of important American museums.  Since we have become accustomed to the even more colossal paintings of contemporary abstract painters, Bierstadt's panoramas no longer appear excessively large.  On the contrary, they are a fitting expression of the time-spirit when the United States experienced her greatest geographical growth, an expansion that stretched over a whole continent.

The same mood of peaceful contentment Bierstadt expressed in his early paintings may also be found in the genre scenes of the early 1850's.  The good life of America during those years is charmingly captured in the paintings of Louis Lang (1814-1893), Henry Bebie (1824-1888), and Paulus Roetter (1806-1894).

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