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American Scenes

The Untamed West
Albert Bierstadt, <i>The Merced River in Yosemite</i>, 1868, oil on canvas
zoom Albert Bierstadt, The Merced River in Yosemite, 1868, oil on canvas


Between 1820 and 1850, nearly four million people moved into the western territories of the United States. Settling this new frontier inspired many Americans with national pride and patriotism. They felt this was America’s divine destiny. And to people tired of living in overcrowded East Coast cities, the West offered resources that seemed unlimited—ore to be mined, forests to be felled, and prairies to be farmed.

The federal government and enterprising businessmen sent survey teams and exploratory expeditions westward. Writers, photographers, and artists often went along to document these journeys. They created art that encouraged easterners to travel to the West or invest in its resources.

The painter Albert Bierstadt made his first trip west in 1858, joining a survey team heading to Colorado and Wyoming. He returned in 1863 and spent two months in Yosemite Valley, California. On all of his journeys, Bierstadt made field sketches, color studies, and photographs. Back home in his New York studio, he used those pictures—taking a sky from here and a mountain from there—to produce his final paintings.

In The Merced River in Yosemite, Bierstadt captured the majestic beauty of dusk (or maybe dawn) on the banks of the Merced River. Sunlight streaming through the trees washes the canyon with tints of gold and pink. The entire scene glows with sunlight reflected off wisps of low-lying clouds and the mist rising from the water. Although Bierstadt included several figures, they are not very important. The sky and mountains, rivers and trees, rocks and wildflowers are the real subjects of this painting.

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1. Bierstadt was inspired to paint the area around Yosemite National Park.
2. Amidst the shadows, three men gather around a campfire.
3. Bierstadt included carefully detailed plants and rocks in the painting.


December 2005