American Stories: Paintings of Everyday Life, 1765-1915


The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

October 12, 2009 – January 24, 2010

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles

February 28, 2010 – May 23, 2010

American Stories is a beautiful exhibition, worth every penny of its exorbitant $20 admission fee. One walks into the room at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and is immediately greeted by long-lost friends, usually seen only on the pages of art history books—Paul Revere (1768) and Watson and the Shark (1778) both by John Singleton Copley, Mary Cassatt’s The Cup of Tea (1880- 81)—with the rest of the excellent paintings spread out in, beckoning in rooms beyond. The Paintings of Everyday Life span a remarkable period in American history, the time when we were becoming American. The exhibition tells more than stories, it tells who and what we were. But these works are not history, for the artists interpreting or narrating life as they understood it. The last paintings done for the show were completed one hundred years ago and we view them with the eyes of those who know what we have become.


John Singleton Copley. Watson and the Shark (1778)

The first rooms focus on the transition from the early American painters, one step beyond the charming limners of the past. Clearly these artists lack the rigorous training of their European counterparts. There is no Jacques Louis David in the making. Perhaps because early American artists of the Eighteenth Century could make a living only as portraitists, we meet the Early Americans as specific individuals who are affluent enough to pay to have their aristocratic self-fashioning recorded for the ages. As elegant and as wealthy as they look, our ancestors are also endearing, due to the artists’ somewhat awkward grasp of anatomy. The heads of their subjects are slightly enlarged and seem to rest unsteadily on the well-clad bodies, as in Copley’s Portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Mifflin (1773). Proportions of the body are slightly off but all the details are carefully outlined and proffered as attributes of the successful upwardly mobile and aristocratically inclined upper classes. The wall text explains that the by-play between the married couple of Charles Wilson Peale’s Portrait of Benjamin and Eleanor Ridgely Laming (1788) is delightfully sexual (despite the big heads). Benjamin is holding a long hose-like walking stick that points towards Eleanor who is wearing a virtuously white dress. The phallic stick points to her crotch, and a pile of carefully cradled fruit in her lap reinforces the prediction of future fecundity.

By the next century, such innocent Freudian slips are rare. American artists are better trained and even folksy artists, such as Lily Martin Spencer and George Caleb Bingham, are producing handsome and well-painted works. Winslow Homer and his successors of the Ash Can School can hold their own with European trained artists, William Merritt Chase and Thomas Eakins. But for sheer virtuosity, few can equal the dazzling brushwork of European trained artists, such as Mary Cassatt or John Singer Sargent at the end of the century. But the formal accomplishments of the American artists are less interesting than the story of America recounted in the paintings. The young country was absorbed in defining itself as a new world of new people who are creating a new way of life offered the artists a wide range of stories to tell. The exhibition is centered upon genre paintings and leaves out landscape paintings, unless they contained a narrative. Even though their original social matrix has vanished, these paintings still act out theatrical tales that lend themselves to interpretation. The wall text provided by the museum is fanciful but seems to be possible within the historical context. The reader is not informed whether the statements come from scholarship or from the curator’s reading of the art, but, ultimately, the paintings themselves tell the most interesting stories.

The artists of the nineteenth century were more open minded or more observant of the great variety of Americans compared to today’s contemporary popular culture, which is ubiquitously white and middle class. Perhaps because the artists of the past were literally present at the creation of a new nation, they avidly recorded everything “American,” as “America” came into being. These painters would have been only a generation or two from immigrants, and, indeed, many of the artists were recent arrivals from the Old World themselves. They were white and male, although a few females dared, here and there, to make art. They or their parents were of European origin and the sheer novelty of “America” was still very real. Today, we are more settled into our American identity. We have become very set in our definition(s) of what it means to tell an “American story.” In comparison to today’s selective gazes, focused on niche sites, the painters in American Stories were eclectic collectors of the sights of the American scene. Because American history had yet to be written and the judgment of our collective deeds had yet to be passed, our national sins were recorded with the same openness as our national virtues were depicted.

The uniqueness of America is its diversity. The nation was forged from a disparate group of people, who were locked in a life and death struggles for dominance and survival. From the very beginning, Europeans were driven by their lust for land and wealth. Land had to be seized from the Native Americans at gunpoint. The vast lands the Europeans grabbed were too large for a single family to manage. The colonials needed agricultural workers and the cheapest laborers were those captured in Africa and sold to plantation owners and businessmen. If America was a second Eden, the sins of theft, genocide, and slavery were present from the start. American Paintings records the uneasy and unspoken bargain with God, who, it was hoped, was white. With all apologies, God, we were despoiling Eden in your name. It is important to remember that the audience of the time for these works was white and middle class, upwardly mobile and ambitious. What we see today as revealing of an ideology of racism and imperialism would have been viewed in the nineteenth century as simply “American stories.”

For the first half of the exhibition, slavery was legal in many states in America, and by mid-nineteenth century, only in the South. Legal or not, the second-class, subservient position of African-Americans was taken for granted from the Constitutional founding of the nation to the end of the Civil War in 1865. The marginal role of the blacks in a democracy, founded upon the principle of “all men are created free and equal” appears over and over in the art. The inclusion of African-Americans in what Alfred Boime called “The Art of Exclusion” changes after the Civil War. After 1865, African-Americans are more likely to be shown in all black groups, segregated from whites. Whites are portrayed as the upper class in opulent interiors or as recent immigrants, urban poor, in tenements. Then by the beginning of the twentieth century, questions of race are replaced with issues of immigration and urban life among the lower classes. The exhibition, intentionally or not, traces the inclusion followed by the exclusion, followed by the disappearance of blacks from American painting.

What we see in these paintings are generations of Americans who were aware of what they were doing but were unwilling to confront the meaning and the consequences of their actions. The races live together but the gaze of the white painters is oblique and ambiguous. What are they trying to record? What stories are left behind for us to read? In 1813, John Lewis Drimmel painted the folk work, The Quilting Frolic (1831), which creates a horizontal display of early American life stretched out in infinite detail. Although the catalogue describes the painting as “democratic,” it is, in fact, an examination of an already solidifying class system.


On the left is a family preparing for the party: the quilt is being stretched on its frame and a little boy helps himself to the prepared food before the party begins. Two white servants seem to be caught off guard, in the act of getting ready for the party. A black child, who carries a tray with a blue and white tea service, assists the staff. An elderly white man and his dog, staying warm by the blazing fire, complete the group. On the right, the upper class white guests arrive, well-dressed in spring attire and self-assured in their casual attitudes. They don’t look much like they would be interested in quilting. Indeed most of the arriving guests are top-hatted men and carefree young women. It is unclear whether they are accompanied by or are greeted by a black servant fiddling at the front door. Whoever the guests are, they are obviously of a higher class that the staff depicted on the right.

These two black servants, a little girl and an adult male, are depicted with bulging eyes, gleaming in the whites, and full red lips, parting to display large white teeth. Their African heritage is fully on display: they are the Other, dehumanized and kept carefully in their visual place. The little girl is burdened and fixed in place by her heavy tray. The man is wearing tattered clothes, handed down from a white man. Like all of African Americans, he is musically inclined, or so the whites thought. William Sidney Mount painted a young black man in The Power of Music (1847) who is also entranced by music, reinforcing the white belief that African Americans were “naturally” musical. The man in this painting has features that are far more human and much less a caricature, but he is a mere eavesdropper on the white men who are the ones allowed to make music. A year later, Richard Caton Woodville featured the same marginality of African-Americans in War News from Mexico. The first declared war of American imperialism was waged on another power, Mexico, only recently released from their Spanish colonial masters. African-Americans were excluded from service in this war, but the black man at the far right of the all-white group listens to the reports from the front as avidly as the other men. After all, he is an American, too. Indeed, the rapt little girl, who is standing next to him, wearing the rags of servitude, will live to see the end of slavery.

America was already occupied by a people the Europeans called “Indians,” when the whites arrived. At first there were thoughts of sharing the vast wilderness and the bounty of the new land, but these thoughts were fleeting and soon dissolved into hostile encounters. The First Contact ended in death and disease and by the early nineteenth century, the Native Americans were the Vanishing Americans, living on borrowed time, somewhere west of the Mississippi. Only when whites venture into the West, do they again encounter that other American race, the Native Americans, who once again stand in the way of Manifest Destiny and its remorseless expansion. Racial issues and racial competition are everywhere. George Caleb Bingham, as early as 1845, noted the frequent fact of interracial mixing in his Fur Traders Descending the Missouri. This peaceful scene showed a French fur trader and his son by a Native American woman and their bear cub, gliding impassively along the mirror like river. Once they set foot on land, the boy becomes a “half-breed.” The father and son are more at home on the fringes of the frontier.

For the Native Americans, time is catching up with them. The settlers are on their way, and the 1840s and 1850s are the last decades before the land-hungry whites overwhelmed the native population. It is during these years that George Catlin was painting portraits of a dying civilization, paradoxically at the peak of its glory. The forts he visited were at the edges of the reach of American authority. Here on the frontier, soldiers and warriors of the plains mingled with traders in a brief moment of uneasy peace. But the territory is already a contested one. Charles Deas revels in the violent fantasies of the fight over territory in The Death Struggle (1845) in a painted pulp fiction tale of the Wild West. A trapper and a warrior and their horses plunge over the edge of a cliff to their doom. From our vantage point, we know that both are soon going to be extinct. In a more peaceful vein, Seth Eastman’s Chippewa Indians Playing Checkers (1848) is an indication of how the pastimes of white culture have already impacted leisure time of the “Indians.”

In 1845 William Sidney Mount painted Eel Spearing at Setauket. In 1855 Charles Felix Blauvel painted A German Immigrant Inquiring His Way. Even though we know that Mount had to re-gender the black spear fisherman to a black woman to make the adult less threatening to whites, both paintings show an easy co-existence between Americans of African extraction and white people of European ancestry. “Easy” coexistence does not mean necessarily “equal” in this newly forming country. Ideology informs the brushstrokes which glaze over the conflicting dialectics of democracy and servitude. The subtext of all of the paintings is the assumed superiority of the white race—even children—over the black or red races. The coexistence can continue—-however tenuously—-only if the status quo is unchallenged. The Civil War disrupts the separate existence of the races and upends the previous balance of power. The art made after the Civil War shows the whites living in their world and the blacks living in their world. The interracial interactions seen before the war ceased to be depicted.

Eastman Johnson painted what would be the last of Negro Life in the South in 1859. He provided his curious white audience with a rare glimpse into the private quarters of the slaves on a plantation. It is unlikely that white women would venture into this alien territory, which would have been supervised by the slaves themselves and, possibly, the plantation overseers. But from the growing number of children of mixed race, we understand that white men, probably the master of the plantation and his sons would have been very familiar with the slave quarters. The great secret of these plantations was the unspoken fatherhood of many of the slaves. White women were expected to close their eyes to their husband and son’s mixed race children sired outside marriage. White men were socialized to accept that fact that their children and grandchildren would be consigned to a lifetime of servitude. There are several shades of skin tones in Johnson’s painting: on the left a very light-skinned young woman is being courted by a darker skinned young man. Accompanied by a young black woman, a young white woman enters stage right. We have no idea why she is there. She looks too young to be the mistress of the plantation, but the museum wall text suggested that she is seeking her black kin. It is highly unlikely any white woman would know of much less acknowledge her brothers and sisters of color. We are left to wonder what Johnson was hinting at in his theatrical setting. Thomas Le Clear’s Young America (1863) is a transition work of art, painted during the Civil War, probably in the North. Carefree white youngsters of middle school age are playing outdoors, while a slightly older African-American teenager watches on the fringes.

These paintings draw the lines between the racial groups: the young white girl is sneaking into a place she does not belong; the black teenager is not allowed to play with the white children. Not until the Civil War are the races brought together. According to the catalogue, the artist, Theodor Kaufmann served with the Union army when the war moved into the South. As the federal troops marched from one Confederate capital after another, the slaves ran, literally for their lives, toward freedom and their only protectors, the Union army. The military was overwhelmed by the presence of the runaway slaves, men, who wanted to serve and fight for their country, women and children who had no where else to go. On to Liberty (1867) shows a group of women, dressed in simple working clothes, light weight and light colored dresses, leading their children in the direction of the Union army. When the painting was completed, the war was over, and the South was occupied by the victorious federal troops. But by the time Winslow Homer painted The Cotton Pickers in 1876, Reconstruction was over, the occupying army had withdrawn leaving the former slaves to their fate at the hands of a South determined to regain control over the errant black population.

What is interesting about these two paintings is the lack of whites. The African-Americans are alone. The interaction with whites is over. The women in Homer’s painting could be the women imagined ten years earlier by Kaufmann. They are still in the South, still working on the very land where their ancestors were enslaved. These women are undoubtedly sharecroppers. They have earned the land they work, but they do no own it. Beautiful and unhappy, they appear stoic and calm, standing among the indifferent cotton plants, silhouetted against the sky. Somehow we place this painting as a pendent to Homer’s earlier, The Veteran in a New Field of 1865. The veteran is white and harvests his own wheat crop. The viewer understands that the African-American women are harvesting, not their own fields, but those of their former (and present) master, or someone very much like him. Farming and endless labor is all the women know.

But a few paintings of African-Americans indicate some measure of progress. Sunday Morning by Thomas Hovenden and A Pastoral Visit by Richard Norris Brooke, both of 1881, show quiet domestic scenes among African-American families. These groups are lower class but not destitute. In fact, their living conditions are positively palatial compared to the actual situation of African-Americans at the time. The simple but well-appointed interiors must have been idealized. Photographs taken by Margaret Bourke-White in the 1930s as she traveled throughout the South, recorded that, forty years later, African Americans were living in shacks. The interior walls, without insulation, were covered with newspapers, illustrated by pictures of consumer goods out of the reach of black people. Having formed their own separate culture and social groups, blacks in the paintings of the 1880s appear to accept their lower class situation with contentment. At least they are slaves no longer.

Clearly, a national ideology was at work in the art world of the nineteenth century. What is unclear is the extent to which the artists were critiquing society or whether they were responding to changing social attitudes. The existence of an artist in America was too tenuous to overtly challenge the collectors and audiences without due cause. After the Civil War, people were tired of war and conflict and we can, perhaps it is best read these paintings as attempts to record and reconcile race relations. It would seem that the only way to acknowledge racial differences was to keep the races separate in these documents of color. The only African-American artist shown in this exhibition, Henry Ossawa Tanner, depicts a grandfather giving his grandson The Banjo Lesson. The year was 1899. The century is nearly done. During the early twentieth century, the people of color disappear from art made by white people.

The stories not told are compelling in their absence. We do not see paintings of the continued genocide in the West, the lynchings and the reign of terror in the South, and the grinding poverty of the poor of all races. Artists of the nineteenth century delineated class and racial differences very carefully. What we are seeing in these racially-based paintings is a social arrangement. The first arrangement is slavery and servitude and the second arrangement is segregation and servitude. Both arrangements are strategies of separation of the races. Both arrangements guarantee white power. Neither arrangement was made with the consent of the oppressed group. Under the brushes of the artists, the non-white races are kept frozen in time, trapped in their social place, caught between historical slavery and current subservience, between the noble savage and the marauding savage. People of color were carefully constructed as compliant with their supposed destiny. “They” accepted their supposed inferiority. Meanwhile, Americans who are white evolve and change, migrate and move and improve their status, leaving Americans of color behind in the historical dust of their Gilded Age.

America has always considered itself “white” and “European” and even today there are those who work hard to repel those who also claim the identity “American.” Those to be denied are those who are neither white nor European. But the whiteness of America is but one political ideology. There is another defining belief in what makes “America,” and that is the belief in American inclusiveness. America is a brave new world because it is the first world to welcome all who come to its shores. For some, it is the European cultural heritage of America that guarantees its “exceptionalism;” for others, it is the diversity, the complexity, the changeability, and the inclusion of the nation that constitutes its “exceptionalism.” The American Story told in this exhibition is one of Difference and Otherness, living side by side, but never coming together to form one America. Perhaps that day will come.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Alexander Gardner (1821-1882) The Way West

Alexander Gardner: The Last of the West

Once it was customary, in less sensitive times, to refer proudly to “winning the West,” a triumphalist trumpeting of conquest and colonialism in which “we,” the authors of history, white people, pushed into “virgin territory” (places not populated by whites), which was “penetrated” by settlers (a mild term), who brought “civilization” (death and disease) to a “vanishing race,” the “Indians” (misnamed), that had outlived its usefulness. The blank and flat prairie, once barren of proper homes and suitable crops, now bloomed under the tender care of the new inhabitants. The early family farms were punctuation marks in a sea of grass stirred by cattle ranches which stretched for miles. Hovering dangerously around the edges of this expanding tide of taming were the original inhabitants of the West, perhaps its rightful owners, indigenous tribes who attacked and burned, protesting the seizure of their ancestral lands. Linking the growing number of towns and cattle market were the railroads, the new lifeblood for the settlers. The purpose of the railroads, crawling across America, running from east to west, was to unite both ends of the nation, tying newly minted California to the old world colony of Maryland. As the railway lines pushed relentlessly forward, they presaged tide of destruction of a way of life hundreds of years old: that of the Plains Indians. Far from being the “vanishing” tribes of the collective white imagination, the Sioux and their relations were not fading not the imperial sunset but were a thriving society at its peak. The untouched beauty and freedom of this nomadic life was captured by the artist George Catlin, perhaps the last outsider to record the Native Americans before contact with European immigrants would begin to change them forever. Caitlin recorded the proud chieftains and the warriors chasing buffalo and the women working in the villages, but, within a generation, the children that the artist met would be involved in a long war for their own survival.


Bull Dance, Mandan O-kee-pa Ceremony (1832)

Between George Catlin and Alexander Gardner, a Civil War had raged, and its aftermath brought renewed impetus to the urge to conquer and settle the Wilderness west of the Mississippi. For idealists, America had been the New Promised Land, a supposedly virgin territory where the European who had fallen from grace could find redemption by creating, as the Puritan leader John Winthorop desired, “a City on the Hill,” a place where all actions were to be seen and viewed and judged in the name of God, a height from which no one could be invisible, or as Matthew (5:14) promised, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house.” But the Puritanical city on the hill had known sin and after the Cain and Able conflict, it was necessary for the nation to begin again. The casualties for the Civil War are today still in contention, but the numbers remain staggering: an entire generation killed or maimed or wounded, and a future uncertain for those left behind. A 2012 BBC News report suggested that the war casualties had been undercounted by some 130, 000. Based on the research of Professor J. David Hacker of Binghamton University, the actual number, counting civilian casualties, is somewhere around 750,000. In an interview on NPR, Hacker explained that he had calculated his number from census records in terms of what was not present: the difference between the men counted in the 1860 census and the number counted in the census of 1870. But the Civil War Trust does not accept Hacker’s 2011 study, considering it too broad and all inclusive and prefers the older number of 650,000. Less important than the actual numbers is the mood of the newly United States of America which then turned to the West, toward the possibility of a new and clean start. Understanding how and why the conquest of the West turned into a bloodbath should be linked to the effects of the War upon the population that moved beyond the Mississippi. Most of the military personnel in charge of the territories during the 1870s were veterans of the War, battle hardened and schooled in the ruthless tactics suitable for modern war. Unfortunately, these attitudes were carried over and directed against an unfamiliar and ancient culture with undeniable claims on the land, a nomadic and free way of life was in the way of the needs of the nation: to renew itself. The photographer Alexander Gardner found himself standing on contested ground at the intersection of conflicting narratives, a place where another tragedy would spill out and another original sin would be added to that of slavery.


United States military casualties of war

When Alexander Gardner arrived in 1867 in what is called today the Midwest, the Kansas Pacific railroad was on its way to the Pacific coast, crossing into the lands beyond the mighty Mississippi, and the Plains tribes were being forced to concede to the white settlers and ranchers in the face of an inexorable rush towards Manifest Destiny. In the twenty-first century, it is hard to fathom the mind set of the mid-nineteenth century person, which to a more modern sensibility seems racist and sexist, leaving us with a gap where questions rather than understanding exist. What was Gardner thinking when he confronted these proud and humiliated and doomed Native Americans? Was he curious? Sympathetic? Or merely a professional doing his job, displaying normal curiosity towards new subjects? This is a man who, as a photographer, had photographed a terrible war, still among the worst events of the nation’s history, and the executions en masse of the assassins of Abraham Lincoln. We can assume that Gardner was the consummate professional and that his new commission, to follow the building of the new railway along the 35th parallel and the final negotiations for a treaty among the Sioux nations and a newly assertive America, might have well been a respite from the violence of the previous years. After years of war, railroad construction would have seemed therapeutic. The open hot windy plains, the methodical making of a straight iron path, the diligent workers, the reassuring presence of the blue uniforms and gold buttons of the military, busy with guarding forts, settlers and keeping the “natives” at bay–all of this activity signifying building and a future could have been an order, a renewal after years of chaos.

The site of Gardner’s new missions was none other than “Bleeding Kansas” itself, ironically the nexus of a whole host of dubious political concepts, from the permissibility of slavery under the doctrine of “popular sovereignty” or the right of state to decide its own political destiny, to the powerful lure of Manifest Destiny, described by the Philadelphia Public Ledger as the impetus to spread as far as “East by sunrise, West by sunset, North by the Arctic Expedition, and South as far as we darn please.” This expansion of America was to take place through or via railroads that would cut deeply into the territories of the Native Americans. Under the law pushed forward by the future opponent of Lincoln, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the newly carved out Nebraska territory, which included the future state of Kansas, should make its own decision about slavery. From 1854 on, Kansas, which bordered on the slave state of Missouri, “bled,” as opposing factions fought over expanding slavery. This mini mid-century preview of the Civil War surprised those who assumed that the so-called Missouri Compromise of 1850 would settle the question of slavery. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act four years later poured salt on a wound widened by leaving the decision about human property to the territories and absolving the federal government of responsibility. While in retrospect, it seemed that Douglas had paved the way for the Civil War with its bloody prelude, his real motivation for organizing the western territory was to open it to railroad development with the idea that the rail line would extend to his home town of Chicago. The “right” to own slaves in the new territory was an add on, designed to increase his political popularity with the Southern states, states Douglas had to win when he ran for the presidency.

A decade later, the best laid plans of Douglas and other men lay in the ruins of the South, where in 1863 slavery ended and the Compromise unraveled. During the Civil War, which was later called “The Railroad War.”, Gardner had photographed the extensive destruction of train tracks by the Union to prevent trains from supplying the South. The conquest of the South by the federal army depended upon pulling apart its mode of transportation, and, while the photographer was in Kansas, a large project was simultaneously underway to reconstruct the destroyed rail lines in the South. Technology may be neutral but its use and disuse is never neutral; and, as William G. Thomas pointed out in The Iron Way: Railroads, the Civil War, and the Making of Modern America (2011), the great irony of the new railroads in the South was that the white population manipulated the law to restrict the movement of the former slaves on the trains and the bitter irony of the new railroads moving west was that they were designed to have the effect of making the Native Americans “vanish.” Before and after the Civil War the expansion of the railroad through the Kansas territory was fraught with fraud. The Native Americans, who ultimately signed over fifty treaties in the midwest, were robbed of their lands and their freedom, corralled onto reservations, and under a strange arrangement termed “severalty,” tribes such as the Delaware, the Kickapoo, and the Shoshone would “eventually” be allowed to control their own affairs only when the President was sure that they were “intelligent” and “prudent” enough to take care of themselves. So much for “popular sovereignty.”

The back story of the Kansas Pacific Railroad is an ugly one, but it may have given Alexander Gardner some satisfaction to witness a building project, dedicated to construction rather than destruction, and to record what seemed at the time to be a peaceful end to a dispute over land. As Jane E. Simonsen pointed out in her article “On Level Ground: Alexander Gardner’s Photographs of the Kansas Prairies,” the photographer had been hired to promote the railroad as a frank manifestation of the conquest of the West which would link the vast continent into one healed whole. The idea of binding the sundered nation into one was a powerful one that gave the imperialistic Manifest Destiny a moral patina and provided an ethical impetus to the intrusion of the covered wagons into the vast plain. Simonsen stated that one of Gardner’s stereoscopic sets was titled “Westward, the Course of the Empire takes its Way,” a nod to the 1860 light-filled mural of the same name by Emmanuel Leutze located behind the western staircase of the House of Representatives. This aspirational mural, which was a naïvely optimistic view of American imperialism, can be considered a prelude to the post-war continuation a long-held dream, one once held by the photographer himself. Gardner, who had immigrated from the lowlands of Scotland, had first planned to settle in a cooperative community in Clayton County, Iowa, midwestern territory. Although he ultimately migrated to the East Coast instead, mentally, Gardner was not a stranger to the promise of the west, but the reality of Kansas was open and untouched country that was being marked by lines of iron, ur tracks on virgin sod. Without mountains, without mountains or hills, the endless flatness mirrored the featureless and open sky and seemed, to the European mind, to invite if not demand landmarks and sites of claiming. One could piously wish for new beginnings through renewal in a landscape unsullied by spilled blood, but the maddeningly flat expanse offered little of the uplifting grandeur that would be found further west. The drama of Gardner’s methodical record of his journey from St. Louis to San Francisco lies not so much in what we see today, but in what we know these photographs portend: the deliberate attempted extermination of wild animals and a free people in the name of commercial exploitation of a territory and its resources.

Laying track west of Hays, Kansas, Alexander Gardner, 1867

Alexander Gardner. Laying Tracks West (1867)

Thanks to his many contacts, Gardner had been hired by the Railway as an experienced professional documentary photographer to replace the amateur photographer William Bell, who subsequently published in 1870 an album of images, New Tracks in North America. A Journey of Travel and Adventure, using, without crediting, the work of Gardner on the project. The task of photographing on the plains was a daunting one: the wind blew constantly, whipping up clouds of dust which wreaked havoc with the fragile photographic equipment and the wet plates and interfered with the views, but Gardner’s images were far superior to those of Bell. It is quite possible that Gardner took his brief–to promote the westward movement of the railroad–quite literally, explaining the concentration on the impact of the Kansas Pacific on the 35th parallel. This was contested territory where one could meet with African Americans seeking a new life of freedom, displaced Native Americans being herded onto reservation lands, European immigrants desiring the open spaces of property that could be their own, and the Army that was to sort out all the corporate and private and governmental claims on the Empire, but Gardner kept his counsel. The Kansas Pacific Railway was originally intended to extend to San Francisco, Gardner’s destination, but stopped in Denver. Although the tracks themselves never reached their intended destination, Gardner followed the projected route, carefully recording the novel landscape and capturing the Native Americans as they existed on the edge of an extinction planned by the new occupiers.

The Next Post will discuss Gardner’s images of Native Americans.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]

Carleton Watkins (1829-1916)



Carleton Watkins in Yosemite

In a virtually unreadable book on the discovery of the California territory called “Yosemite,” the first owner of a tourist establishment in what became a national park, James M. Hutchings (1820-1902) gave an account of the discovery of a valley that belonged the native Americans. In the Heart of the Sierras (1888) Hutchings wrote (laboriously) of how the discovery of gold in California brought white miners to the region, encroaching on native lands.


James M. Hutchings. The Heart of the Sierras (1888)

The result was clashes between the miners and other settlers and the original inhabitants and one of the leaders of the white community, Major James D. Savage and his troops followed the “Yo Semites” into unknown territory, where as Hutchings recounted that on on May 5 or 6, 1851, “the great valley opened before them like a sublime revelation.” When the Mariposa Battalion stumbled upon Yosemite, one member of the party, Lafayette Houghton Bunnell (1824-1903) who was a member of the Battalion, later wrote of his experience,

It has been said that “it is not easy to describe in words the precise impressions which great objects make upon us.” I cannot describe how completely I realized this truth. None but those who have visited this most wonderful valley, can even imagine the feelings with which I looked upon the view that was there presented. The grandeur of the scene was but softened by the haze that hung over the valley—light as gossamer—and by the clouds which partially dimmed the higher cliffs and mountains. This obscurity of vision but increased the awe with which I beheld it, and, as I looked, a peculiarly exalted sensation seemed to fill my whole being, and I found my eyes in tears with emotion.

Over a decade later, President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), mired in a brutal Civil War, paused in 1864 to give life everlasting to the remarkable valley by marking it off as a place to be preserve and protected, the Yosemite Preservation Act. The first Native American tribe that lived in Yosemite, the Ahwaneechee, were there for four thousand years and it was their descendants, the Miwok Indians objected to the presence of the whites on their lands. The American government, anxious to protect the new state that was yielding gold, ordered Savage (a store owner whose place of business had been attacked by the tribe) to clear the “Yo Semite” territory of the Miwok. Once the tribe was forcibly removed to Fresno, Hutchings heard of tales of a thousand foot waterfall from the Battalion and began to visit the area in 1855. Becoming an authority on California, specializing in Yosemite, he opened a hotel in the valley, the “Hutchings House” in 1864. By that time, Yosemite was to be held in trust for the nation. This the first step in creating a system of national parks in 1916 is often credited to the photographic works of Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916).


Bit by the gold bug, Watkins had left Oneonta, N. Y. in 1849. In one of the odder historical coincidences he traveled with another individual from the same town, Collis Potter Huntington (1821-1902), who became one of the “Big Four,” the railroad magnates who built the Central Pacific Railroad and the Southern Pacific Railroad. Later Watkins became the unofficial photographer for the railroads and thanks to the patronage of his friend, he could ride the rails for free.Obviously the two young men went their very separate ways, Huntington dying rich and famous, Watkins, bankrupt and insane, but in between, Watkins enjoyed a brief period of fame as a famous and celebrated photographer. The photographer went from a small town in New York to the biggest city on the West Coast, San Francisco, where he learned the collodion process from Robert Vance. After an apprentice period, Watkins headed off for the untouched world of Yosemite to take the first photographs. However, he was not the first to depict Yosemite, that honor goes to Thomas A. Ayres ((1816-1858), who called the valley “Yohimity” and produced a series of lithographs in 1856, the first scenic views to be published in Hutchings’ California Magazine.


Drawing by Thomas A. Ayres

In writing of his experiences, Ayres, who had been on the first excursion into the territory in 1855, reported,

Sitting by our camp fire, the next evening a mass of rocks feel from the cliff near us, loosened, probably, by the previous rain. Starting like a crash of thunder, it came like the tread of an earthquake, while rocks and trees dashed into the valley, whose twilight solemn stillness was broken by the uproar, prolonged by innumerable reverberations. We retired with feelings fully impressed by the awful manifestations of Nature with which we were surrounded;— It would require a much larger space to recount our advertisers in grouse shooting and trout fishing, my wanderings with pencil and sketch book, hunting after the picturesque, admiring the glorious sunrise effects, or the beauties of the declining day from choice points of view. The time passed like a dream, and it was with regreat that we left the beautiful Valley of the Yohemity, bound on an exploring trip to its head waters, far among the snow-clad peaks of the Sierra Nevada, of which more anon.

Nor was Watkins the first photographer to go to Yosemite, that honor belongs to Charles L. Weed (1824-1903), who was sent to the area by Robert Vance (1825-1876), the San Francisco who also mentored Watkins. The permanent first house built in Yosemite was constructed in 1855 by Buck Beardsley and Gustavus Hite for Hutchings, and it was Beardsley himself who had to carry Weed’s photographic equipment. Perhaps for his troubles, Weed’s first photograph, taken on June 18, 1859, in the Yosemite Valley was of the “Upper Hotel.”


Charles L. Weed. The “Upper Hotel” (1859)

However, Weed did not make mammoth plate photographs in the Valley until 1865, years after Watkins, whose photographs are considered superior, both in formal composition and in technical ability.

The Valley, From the Mariposa Trail, 1864, Charles L. Weed

Taken in 1865 in the Wake of Watkins, Weed showed the Entire Tree, unlike Watkins who cut off its Top

That said, photo historian Weston Naef has suggested that several lithographs published in Hutchings’ magazine could have been based on photographs taken in Yosemite by Watkins and that Watkins had visited the area before 1861. The truth will never ben know for the photographers’ archive was destroyed in the San Francisco Earthquake and Fire in 1906. However, it was Watkins who was asked in 1860 to photograph the Mariposa tract and when he made a preliminary tour of the area, he realized that the conventional camera would be inadequate. Therefore, in 1861, Watkins, apparently well informed of the prospects awaiting a commercial photographer in the valley and undoubtedly feeling competitive with Weed, arrived with a remarkable camera, called the “mammoth plate” to accommodate the 18 x 22 inch glass plates. To put this size in perspective, these plates which determined the size of the photographs, were larger than one of today’s laptop.


Watkins. The Mammoth Plate Camera

The wooden camera alone weighed forty pounds and the glass plates weighed one pound each, but despite the bulk and weight of the equipment, both camera and sharp edged sheets of glass were fragile. The chemicals necessary for the collodion process also added to the cumbersome equipment that had to be transported over untrodden trails and steep mountain paths. The light was bright and the shadows of tall mountains and great gorges and tall tress were strong and dark: the sky would have to be allowed to bleach out for the long exposures necessary to fully engage the details of the wilderness.


Watkins. Cathedral Rock

Given the rugged terrain and the precipitous heights of the valley, Watkins went to considerable trouble and exertion to find and acquire what he called “the best view.” He had an eye sensitive for capturing the scenery in all its grandeur, from its great heights, towering rock faces, jetting waterfalls and still glassy lakes. Decades later it was possible for conservationist John Muir (1838-1913) to trace the photographic steps of Watkins, image by image. When Watkins returned from Yosemite, he carried back thirty mammoth plates and a hundred stereoscopic negatives, measuring about 5 x 5 each, a tent and various assorted pieces of equipment, all two thousand pounds of it carried by mules.


Notice the composition: Watkins invariably divided his structure in the direct center.

The aesthetic of Watkins was informed by the Hudson River school of painters in the American East and it is their composition that governs his photographs. Like the American painter Thomas Cole, Watkins worked from high vantage points and centers his main points of interest and uses trees as a repoussoir. But he is photographing unseen sights, unprecedented in art and Watkins had to forge his own solutions to difficult problems, the distant view across a wide canyon dissolving in the mist, a perfect mirrored reflection, a waterfall hundreds of feet high shooting down the cliff face in a blurred white plume.


The long exposure turns the moving water into a blur.

A year later his work was shown in New York at the Goupil Gallery on Broadway and for the first time, the public on the East Coast could see the California scenery they had heard so much about. According to The Guardian in 2011, The New York Times reported in December of 1862,

As specimens of the photographic art they are unequalled, and reflect great credit upon the producer, Mr Watkins. The views of lofty mountains, of gigantic trees, of falls of water which seem to descend from heights in the heavens and break into mists before they reach the ground, are indescribably unique and beautiful. Nothing in the way of landscape can be more impressive or picturesque.


Watkins splits the composition vertically and uses tree to left as repoussoir.

The photography of Yosemite Valley took place during the opening year of the Civil War and became part of a larger impulse to settle the continent from one coast to the other, called “Manifest Destiny.” The famous term was coined by editorial writer John L. O’Sullivan (1813-1895) in relation to the Mexican War. As Sullivan said,

..the right of our manifest destiny to overspread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty and federative self government entrusted to us. It is a right such as that of the tree to the space of air and earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth.

The dream of stretching from sea to shining sea could not be carried out until the question of which new states in the West would be allowed to own slaves and which states should not and a long and blood war had to be fought to settle the issue. Lincoln’s act of setting aside Yosemite was a gesture of hope that the nation would some day be healed and whole. It seems quite possible that the President actually saw the photographs by Watkins that so inspired him because John Conness, California’s first senator showed him the images. Indeed that is the theory of Weston Neff who accounted for Lincoln’s knowledge of a pristine nature and a sanctuary. Another version stated that a congressman saw the New York exhibition and called Lincoln’s attention to it. Whatever the source of Lincoln’s insertion, after terrible battles and many deaths, the unsullied and unspoiled West must have beckoned like another chance for redemption to a war weary public. As soon as the war was over, artists, such as Albert Bierstadt, who had seen the photographs at Goupil’s in 1862, followed Carlton Watkins into the untouched West.


The gridded layers of light and dark are reminiscent of the landscapes that Cézanne would produce decades later in Aix.

Watkins photographed more of the West than Yosemite. In fact, according to the seminal volume on his work from the J.Paul Getty Museum, Carleton Watkins: The Complete Mammoth Photographs (2011), he made over twelve hundred mammoth plate photographs and five hundred stereotype views. However, he made more photographs at Yosemite than any other site, working between 1861 and 1867 and returning in 1872 to work with smaller plates and reworking previous sites. Including his work from 1865-66 with the California State Geological Survey, his album, Photographs of the Yosemite Valley, replicated his journey seventy-five miles into the Valley, shot by shot. The most famous of these images was The Yosemite Valley from the “Best General View (1866) which comprised many of the vistas he made famous in one image, carefully framed and classically composed.



Watkins. The Yosemite Valley from the “Best General View (1866)

Perhaps the high point of the career of Watkins was 1867 when his work was shown at the Paris International Exhibition. In contrast to Édouard Manet (1832-1883), who was rejected from the exhibition and James Whistler who was tucked away in the American section, Watkins won a gold metal for landscape photography. Although the French photographers were producing extraordinary landscapes–Gustave Le Gray’s (1820-1884) work was remarkable–there was nothing as impressive as the mammoth prints of Watkins.


Watkins. El Capitan.

Unfortunately, the French had trouble separating one American from the other and others were given and/or took credit for his work, including Weed. Strangely it was the beginning of a low slow end for Watkins, who would be cheated out of his work in San Francisco, get into financial trouble and have his negatives taken away, had the bulk of his work destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake and fire. Watkins would die, nearly forgotten and would not be rediscovered until the 1970s and not until the 1980s would the entire scope and range of his work be gathered together.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Podcast Episode 23: American Romanticism in Landscape Painting




American Romanticism was always based upon the concept of the search for the Garden of Eden. The “frontier” of America, the edges of this God-given Garden, was the Appalachian Mountains which were being probed by the early nineteenth century. Inspired by Romantic poetry, artists in the northeast were suffused with nostalgia for the vanishing frontier and celebrated the splendor that remained behind. The Hudson River painters recorded their landscapes at a precise moment in time, just before the Industrial Revolution closed in. When this “garden” in the Eastern half of the United States was destroyed by the “machine” of the railroad, the technology of the Industrial Revolution, and the horror of the Civil War, the lure of the “Frontier” inspired the painters. Part documentary and part nationalism, these Romantic landscape paintings of the untouched West celebrated the Manifest Destiny of America to stretch “from sea to shining sea.”


If you have found this material useful, please give credit to
Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed.

Thank you.
[email protected]

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