Looking Back At A Lost Landscape


Morgan Meis ponders the connection between Albert Bierstadt’s “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” (seen above) and 19th century Americans’ Emerson-inspired approach to nature:

Emerson had spent his whole life sending the imaginations of American artists out into nature. He’d done it with his famous essay, Nature, written in 1836, and furthered his cause with the stream of essays and lectures that flowed from his pen in the years following. In Nature, Emerson explained that Americans have a special relationship with nature and, thus, a special responsibility to connect with nature’s beauty as it can be found in the American landscape. Painters like Albert Bierstadt took up this task with gusto. They got out there into the wild and they put nature on the canvas just as they thought Emerson had directed them to. And that’s why the folks at Mount Holyoke College started their museum with Albert Bierstadt’s painting. “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” is an example of the first uniquely American movement in painting as it was inspired by the thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

How the meaning of the painting has changed:

With the obliteration of Hetch Hetchy Canyon the place, “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” the painting is now a cautionary tale in the limits of Emersonian metaphysics. The painting no longer seems to give us a true picture of nature, but nature as we once fantasized it should be.