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November 24, 2021

Mid-Morning Art Thread [Kris]

Bierstadt Helens.png

Mount St. Helens, Columbia River, Oregon
Albert Bierstadt

This is a good example of Bierstadt’s style—a beautiful view of a majestic, idealized, but not necessarily realistic, landscape. Mount Saint Helens did not look like this; its shape was more rounded and dome-like. Instead, Bierstadt is sacrificing reality for the sake of beauty. A rounded dome would not give this painting its power, and it wouldn’t provide the needed contrast against the foreground that this jagged myth provides. In your mind’s eye, change the mountain to its more natural smooth dome-shape. Notice how the view and the experience changes.

Bierstadt constructs the foreground as a soft, gentle slope covered with thick, green foliage. Deer lounge peacefully in the tall grass. Tall trees, just beginning to change color in the early autumn, frame the picture. They lift the landscape’s contours into the rich blue field of the sky. The colors in this section: blue, green, yellow/orange, are adjacent on the color wheel. They provide a gentle transition from cool hues to warm. This quiets the palette and allows for a peaceful viewing. The deer are puny and blend into the landscape. Animals have more energy than plants and they can easily dominate a composition. Here they are small and are a similar color to their surroundings. Instead of competing with the scene, they are part of it and are almost lost in it.

Around the central vertical of the work, the tone shifts. The calm green on the left drops off suddenly, revealing the purple and white of the background. Notice there is no middle ground here. Bierstadt’s focus is the volcano and he composes the foreground in a way where it pulls back like a curtain to reveal the mountain. The foreground and trees fall down the edge and fade until they are cut off by the bottom frame. The foothills in the lower center and right lack any real definition. They are almost rendered like large swaths of color and shape that are dwarfed by the mountains. The patches lay flat and are stacked gently on top of each other, then, suddenly, the mountain explodes upward. The bright white cap attracts my eye and washes out the hills below. Where the majority of the lines and forms in the painting are flat, curvy, and horizontal, the mountain is angular and aggressively vertical. The ridges on the mountain’s slope, lit up by the early morning sun, lead my eye up to its peak. The sharp highlights and shadows give the mountain a craggy texture that also contrasts against the smooth landscape.

The ridges don’t go straight up though. They rise in a slight right-hand spiral that, to me, resemble a girl’s twirling skirt. This creates an energy that conflicts with the tranquility of the rest of the work. Combined with the bright whitecap on the peak, this allows the volcano to dominate the entire composition. Even though the left foreground is brighter and has more detail and definition, my eye has a hard time leaving the mountain to take in the rest of the view. The mountain becomes powerful and majestic.

This is the mood Bierstadt wanted the viewer to feel. For me, the memories of the 1980 explosion add to my feelings about this work. Bierstadt wanted a work where the viewer feels the energy radiate from the volcano, where the mountain spins and growls like a tiger behind the confining bars of the surrounding landscape. By adding the images of the 1980 event to this work, the energy in this work is not just felt in an abstract way. The energy suggested here is real, and it’s spectacular.

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posted by Open Blogger at 09:30 AM

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