Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), a native of Germany who grew up in New England, is best known for his lustrous, large-scale paintings of the American West. But, in fact, Bierstadt's first landscape paintings were of the White Mountains of New Hampshire, where he spent several weeks in the summer of 1860. It is likely that this painting was created as a result of that summer sojourn.
With its warm, golden light, interplay of sun and shadow, scenic splendor, and serenity of mood, the painting was intended to be an object of beauty, reflecting the aesthetic nature of Nature itself. But the painting had metaphorical overtones as well. In 1863, the country was in the throes of the Civil War, and the sense of calm that pervades the painting echoed Americans' yearning for a return to prewar tranquility and their perception of nature as an avenue of escape and healing.
The mid-nineteenth century was also a period of national expansion. American landscape painting of the period was often imbued with the theme of Europe as a corrupt, tired, ancient land and America as the land of regeneration, potential, and fulfillment.
But pride in the perceived inevitability of Manifest Destiny was colored by the realization that, with expansion and progress, came the loss of the kind of pristine natural scenes depicted in Bierstadt's painting. In that context, Mountain Brook can be read as a metaphor for nationalism on the one hand, and nostalgia for the rapidly disappearing past on the other.
A decisive juncture in Bierstadt's artistic career came in 1859, just four years before Mountain Brook was painted: He received permission to travel west with a surveying party and caught his first glimpse of the Rocky Mountains and other natural marvels that were to provide inspiration for his work the rest of his life. Bierstadt was not the first artist to paint landscapes of the West, but he is generally considered the first with the technical skill and aesthetic sensibility required to produce works of lasting artistic value.
Mountain Brook will be on view as part of the Nasher Museum's permanent collection when the museum opens in October.