June 10, 2011

Beauty and Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration - A survey of great 19th and 20th-century American landscape paintings and photographs presented by the Seattle Art Museum

Beauty and Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration 
SAM - Seattle Art Museum 
June 30 - September 11, 2011

The Seattle Art Museum (SAM) presents a survey of great 19th and 20th-century American landscape paintings and photographs in the exhibition BEAUTY AND BOUNTY: AMERICAN ART IN AN AGE OF EXPLORATION. Through more than 100 works, including an in-depth presentation of the Seattle Art Museum’s painting Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast (1870) by Albert Bierstadt, Beauty and Bounty shows American artists’ responses as they encountered the North American continent’s ever-expanding vastness of natural beauty and nature’s bounty and provides a rare opportunity to view great works of American art from private collections, which have rarely – or never – been seen by the public. 

In the late 19th to early 20th centuries, painters including Sanford Gifford, Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran gave form to landscapes of once unimaginable character, as they crossed the continent on expeditions through the plains and the mountains of the Great West. Beauty and Bounty includes about 45 of these majestic works – many of which are held in private collections and were previously unknown to the public. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a gallery devoted to one painting: Albert Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast (1870), which is dramatically displayed to convey its 19th-century context, alongside objects that the artist himself had collected during his travels and used as source material for the painting. 

Also included in the exhibition are approximately 60 landscape photographs, including mammoth plate images by pioneers of the western photography, including Carleton Watkins, Edward Muybridge, and Timothy O’Sullivan. 

“Many would be surprised by the wealth of important American landscape paintings and photographs that exist in private collections in the Seattle area,” said PATRICIA JUNKER, the Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art at SAM. “We are so grateful for the generosity of these collectors who have loaned their works, allowing our visitors to deepen their understanding of the American experience, through the eyes and experiences of some of our country’s greatest 19th and early 20th-century artists.” 

The paintings and photographs on view demonstrate that it was often these artist-explorers who were raising important questions about humankind’s place in the world and how best to respond to a continent that many at the time viewed as a divine blessing of beauty and bounty from nature. Naturalists John Muir and Gifford Pinchot had close relationships with painters during this period, and the works of art in the exhibition suggest the distinct philosophical ideals of preservation and conservation promoted by these influential men. 

Visitors to Beauty and Bounty begin by moving through a suite of galleries filled with nearly 45 grand landscape paintings by some of the late 19th-century’s greatest American artists. This was a time of great fascination with and optimism about westward expansion in the United States. While artists discovered the vast beauty of nature throughout the growing nation, the west – and the Pacific Northwest in particular – was viewed as the “next great thing” for the United States – a land of unspoiled beauty and seemingly boundless natural resources. A number of artists traveled west, where they sketched the largely untouched landscapes they found, often returning to their studios on the East Coast to produce their large-scale oil paintings to be shared with the public. In paintings such as Albert Bierstadt’s Sunrise, Yosemite Valley (1865), Sydney Laurence’s Mount McKinley (1914) and many others, the artists placed themselves – and, subsequently their viewers – right in the middle of these majestic landscapes. Through their paintings, these artists brought home with them the mystique of fabled places such as Yosemite and Yellowstone, the Columbia River and the Pacific coast of Washington State, to be experienced by lay-people across the country. 

The exhibition includes both oil sketches created on-the-spot within these natural surroundings and highly finished works from the artists’ studios. Also on view are a number of partings of landscapes from the eastern half of the United States, such as John Frederick Kensett’s paintings Narragansett Bay (1861) and Lake George (ca. 1865), and Winslow Homer’s An Adirondack Lake (1870). 

The presentation of landscape paintings in Beauty and Bounty culminates in a deep exploration of the Seattle Art Museum’s own grand painting, Albert Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast (1870). New research by SAM curator Patricia Junker has revealed insights into the painting that allow a deeper understanding of the artist’s intent, as well as what the painting would have meant to his American audiences back on the East Coast. Bierstadt, Junker has learned, traveled through Oregon and up the coast of the Washington Territory in 1863, sketching and gathering source material that would inform this painting and others. Including field sketches, native artifacts from Bierstadt’s personal collection, photographs, and popular prints, this gallery brings together much of the material that fueled Bierstadt’s imagination and helped shape his composition. 

Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast will be installed in a manner reminiscent of how it would have been experienced in 1870. At that time, patrons would have visited Bierstadt’s studio to see the painting and learn about the natural wonders he witnessed on his travels. Viewers would spend a large amount of time looking deeply at the image, the artist meticulously walking them through the story and the details of the painting. At SAM, the painting will be accompanied by an audio feature that replicates this experience, using descriptive text taken from nineteenth-century commentary on the painting. 

Rather than a traditional exhibition catalogue, Beauty and Bounty will be accompanied by a book that outlines Patricia Junker’s new findings about this painting from SAM’s collection. Albert Bierstadt’s Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast: A Superb Vision of Dreamland is co-published by the Seattle Art Museum and the University of Washington Press and was produced by Marquand Books, Seattle. It has been underwritten by the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc. 

By the late-nineteenth century, the role of photographers as artists, as well as documentarians, was firmly established. Much like their counterparts working in paint, landscape photographers grappled with how to portray the vast landscapes they encountered. They also struggled with similar philosophical issues, as they witnessed the pull between those who desired to maintain the integrity of these pristine natural landscapes and those who felt a balance could be struck between conservation and management of the natural resources these areas harbored. Mammoth plate photographs from the 1880s by Frank Jay Haynes, for example, present stunningly beautiful views of Yellowstone’s canyons and waterfalls, while a series of equally beautiful photographs by Darius Kinsey from the turn of the 20th century document the logging industry in the Pacific Northwest and its toll on the land and forests of the region. Other large-scale photographs on display include works by William Henry Jackson, Carleton E. Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan and more. 

The exhibition also includes a gallery of stereograph images by Edward Muybridge, Charles Bierstadt and others, as well as a rare, 1853 Daguerreotype by Platt Babbitt of a view at Niagara Falls. 

Beauty and Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration has been organized by Patricia Junker, the Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum. 

This exhibition is organized by the Seattle Art Museum. Members of the Visionary Circle (Thomas W. Barwick, Jeffrey and Susan Brotman, Barney A. Ebsworth, Jon and Mary Shirley, Virginia and Bagley Wright, Ann P. Wyckoff) have provided crucial funding to make that exhibition possible. Presenting Sponsor is Seattle Office of Arts & Cultural Affairs. Exhibition Sponsors are Christie's and The Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts, Inc. Additional support is provided by SAM's American Art Endowment and contributors to the Annual Fund. Media Sponsor is King 5 Television. Airline Sponsor is Alaska Airlines/Horizon Air. 

SAM Downtown, Fourth Floor, Simonyi Special Exhibition Gallerie