Muir and a Renewal of the Sublime

I finally got a chance to watch the first episode of Ken Burns’ The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. As I watched, I couldn’t help but reflect more upon several of the paintings we looked at in class. The story of how John Muir found a spiritual reawakening in Yosemite got me thinking again about how the concept of wilderness began to change.

We discussed in class how the “wild” used to be a place to be feared, and then a place to be conquered by progress. Paintings from earlier in the 19th century depict nature as a force to be reckoned with. In particular, Philippe de Loutherbourge’s Avalanche in the Alps brings this idea to mind.

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Philippe de Loutherbourge, “Avalanche in the Alps” (1803)

This painting illustrates the concept of the sublime; nature’s fury and human insignificance in its presence. The mountaineers are powerless before the might of the avalanche, and the dark and energized atmosphere illuminates the element of danger. Out in the middle of a wild mountain range, the explorers tempt death in this dangerous terrain. Paintings that came later illustrating the concept of “Manifest Destiny” still depict the wilderness as a dangerous force with foreboding clouds on the horizon. But in these later paintings, the wilderness was something to be tamed by pioneers. It was the American destiny to conquer the western wilderness. However, when John Muir began to explore Yosemite, his response was Romantic in nature. He was awestruck by what he perceived as the beauty of the wilderness.

But what I personally found notable from watching Burns’ documentary was that John Muir embraced all aspects of Yosemite, from the visually aesthetic to the outright dangerous. Anecdotes describe Muir climbing down behind Yosemite falls to experience what the water must be feeling as it falls, and even riding an avalanche down a mountain. Muir embraced the very same sublime scenario visible in Loutherbourge’s painting, and instead of fearing or describing it as a malicious force to be reckoned with, Muir embraced it as the beauty of God’s creation. Muir preached a gospel of nature, even saying,

“In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world.”

Muir’s arrival at Yosemite Valley may mark the beginning of a move back towards the idea that God can be found in the wilderness. The wild landscapes of Yosemite and the big trees of the Sierra, and soon the erupting geysers and the tremendous waterfalls of the Yellowstone region, were slowly being seen in a different light. Even amidst the rush of Manifest Destiny and civilized progress which seek to conquer the landscape, a select few individuals, like John Muir, seem to be renewing the idea of the sublime. It was not something to be outright feared, but something to find peace in. They became places where people could rejuvenate themselves and come face to face with God. I believe this change in perspective is reflected in later paintings. Notably, I point out a very familiar painting from our very own Birmingham Museum of Art.

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Albert Bierstadt, “Looking Down Yosemite Valley” (1864)

I am of course referring to Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley. I believe this painting best represents John Muir’s philosophy. The painting is on a grand scale, taking up a wall at the end of a hallway in the Birmingham Museum. The view depicts a sunrise in the valley, and everything from the clouds, crags, trees, and water are rendered with meticulous detail. A golden glow sweeps across the landscape, giving an almost otherworldly atmosphere to the painting. We do not see the harsh, brutal, wrathful mountains Loutherbourge paints. We instead see the mountains, trees, and streams that Muir finds the beauty of nature and of God’s creation. The painting’s scale aids in this as well. On such a large scale, it’s as if the viewer is really looking into the valley itself. The painting’s scale recreates the grandeur of Yosemite Valley as well as it possibly can. On a technical level, this painting is a successful render of the valley. On a conceptual level, this painting successfully depicts what John Muir spent his life preaching.

So to sum up, I believe that, along with John Muir’s philosophy of “God in nature,” the way artists began to render the western landscape reflects a renewed, less-catastrophic idea of the sublime. The early photographs of the landscapes, and paintings by artists like Albert Bierstadt reflect a more wondrous idea of the natural environment. Like John Muir, these artists celebrate the beauty of what would become the earliest National Parks. Such images, along with Muir’s preachings and writings, would help solidify the idea that such locations were worth setting aside and protected.

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