Albert Bierstadt is one of my favorite painters.1 His paintings of “America” are incredible. They’re done in a style that’s called luminism, and they look like they’re actually glowing. They look like perfect National Park vistas where the sun is shining so you can see actual lines of sun.
Printed pictures and computer screens don’t do these paintings justice. On a screen or printed really small, they look like crappy hotel paintings or stuff you’d buy at one of those wretched “art galleries” in a mall.2 A lot like Seurat, IMHO, they don’t survive their own representation very well. A lot of my youthful disinterest when it came to painting was, I bet, the product of shitty prints. I think, more and more, that this is one of the reasons I love illustration so much. I’ve always seen illustrations as they were meant to be seen.
Anyway, you’ll just have to trust me that these paintings are massive and beautiful. They are also, however, pretty much just flat out lies. (Hence “America” above.) They’re not paintings of reality, they’re paintings of the idea of the west. They’re inventions. And for some reason, I find this idea weird when it comes to landscapes, and not at all weird when it comes to anything else in art.
I keep trying to figure out why precisely this is such a funny idea for landscapes but not for, like, history paintings. Or comics. Or caricatures. Because of course it doesn’t have to be real to be beautiful or have an impact. I think in this case it’s the humorous idea that it’s somehow fraudulent? That he’s this shyster. And he doesn’t tell little lies, he tells massive, room-filling lies. And part of it is that it’s selling the dream of America, the way a 1950s ad is selling the dream of America. It’s funny in the same way those ridiculous ads are funny.
There’s a quote at SAAM I wish I wrote down about Bierstadt, but the takeaway of it is basically that he portrays America, if not as it is, as it should be. And while that isn’t a flaw, exactly, it is one of the things that adds not-purely-aesthetic interest to his paintings. Maybe that’s why I keep coming back to my pretty pictures of buffalos and mountains and bears. Because they make clear that a landscape is not just decoration. They make me wonder what the point was of the picture in the first place.