Water + Trees + Mountains = Landscape

I have been browsing through many landscape paintings on the Internet and have noticed that many of them consist of water, trees, and a mountain scene or rock bluffs. Take Asher B. Durand’s – Progress The Advance of Civilization (1853), Frederick Edwin Church’s, Cotopaxi (1862), and Albert Bierstadt’s, Looking Down Yosemite Valley (1864) for instance, they all contain water, trees, and mountains. Each one can hold a different meaning depending upon the artist or viewer of the painting. The artist will paint landscapes with his or her interpretations hoping the viewer will see what they see, but that is not always the case. I can look at a painting and have one point of view while someone else can have another. My goal is to portray the different meanings that water, trees, and mountain scenes can hold within landscape art. I will look at Albert Bierstadt’s, Looking Down Yosemite Valley in particular to give the different meanings of each physical attribute.

Bierstadt painted Looking Down Yosemite Valley to encourage people to head west and expand the United States. He did a good job of portraying the west as some place that everyone should visit and long to be a part of. At first glance, people see something awe inspiring, but when you look at the painting closer you can see a few negative aspects that I do not think Bierstadt wanted to portray.

Bierstadt made the mountains seem much bigger than they really are. The massiveness of the rocks gives a vibe of how big the west is or how much of the west is undiscovered. It gives people an idea that there are endless possibilities when traveling westward. During this time period many people were looking for new opportunities and the west seemed to be the answer. In contrast, the jagged edges of the rocks can be a glance at the struggles people can face when trying to head west. Also, it could be a symbol of what moving west will do to the environment. New technology of steam and coal burning train cars and the leveling of vast pieces of land made a major, negative impact on the environment permanently.

I believe the trees can be compared to the people who move west. People and trees are in some ways alike. There are trees the succeed more than others, some are cut before they reach full potential, and some contract diseases. Humans are more successful than others, they live short lives, and some get diseases. Bierstadt painted all of these types of trees in his painting. Just because someone goes west, it does not mean they will be successful. Many will face adversity when trying to move west, but many will succeed. The tall, luscious trees are seen in the foreground to give people a sense of hope about succeeding out west.

Now lets look at the many meanings of water. Water can be viewed scientifically or purely aesthetic.  Civilizations have always looked at water as “life-giving”.  Water has always been a very useful subject matter in this way because it is always important for artists to be able to express their ideas.  This allows people to see there is always a new way of looking at things, and the west is new at this time. Water is a popular subject because it can be very interesting artistically, scientifically, and so important to life in general. We can view it agriculturally, as romantic, dramatic, serene, violent, inspiring,  a form of transportation, living quarters, a type of recreation, purification, and life-giving. In Looking Down Yosemite Valley, Bierstadt seemed to use water as something tranquil and peaceful. In comparison to the west, the water can be seen as a mode of transportation or something that gives life to people. The west was a place where people could be given a new life and fresh start.


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