Thursday, March 29, 2012

Views of the Rocky Mountains from Denver

I have recently signed up for a six day, 442 mile bike ride through the Rocky Mountains, called Ride the Rockies, This obviously necessitates a lot of training! Towards that end I am doing a 25 mile loop three days a week that takes me up to the Cherry Creek State Park, which has an elevated position to the southwest of Denver. Because of this, I get a terrific view of the Rocky Mountains that changes every day (that is part of downtown Denver at the right of the photo above). I do my ride at dawn, so I often have the sun bathing the Rockies with glorious light, giving me a boost of enthusiasm to keep up my training.

In any case, the view of the Rockies, from approximately the location of Denver, is one that has inspired a number of artists over the years, so there are some very nice prints which show it. Today's blog will look at a few of these.

The first print is entitled “View of the Rocky Mountains on the Platte 50 Miles from their base.” This was engraved by F. Kearney after a drawing by Samuel Seymour and issued in 1822. This is considered to be the first depiction of the Rocky Mountains based on a first-hand drawing.

Seymour accompanied Major Stephen Long’s expedition to the Rockies in 1819-20. The expedition came down the South Platte, passing by the future site of Denver, and Seymour made a number of drawings of what is today Colorado. This view was drawn on July 4, 1820 from a position just to the north of Denver. The view shows South Boulder Peak, Green Mountain and the site of today’s Boulder. While not exactly the same as my view of Denver, it is very similar.

Seymour’s scene shows the plains along the base of the Rockies as completely undeveloped. This changed radically four decades later, with the Pike’s Peak gold rush of 1858-60, when Denver and Golden were established in this area. Still, the land along the foothills was relatively undeveloped and the area was definitely the American frontier. This was the feeling that Worthington Whittredge wanted to show in his view of “The Rocky Mountains.”

Whittredge was a well-known landscape artist from the mid-west who traveled to the American West with General John Pope’s expedition of 1866. About 1870, Whittredge produced a painting, “Crossing the Ford, Platte River, Colorado,” based on sketches he made during this trip. The scene shows the ford on the Platte, essentially at Denver, with an Indian settlement along the banks of the river and the Rockies in the distance. No evidence of Denver or any other gold rush impact is seen, for Whittredge was interested in a natural western scene, not in the changes being wrought by the flood of Americans from the east.

This painting fit the image that Americans wanted to have of the Rockies, so it because very well-known and was reproduced twice in print. First it appeared as a wood engraving in Leslie’s Weekly in 1869, and then in 1872 in Picturesque America as a steel engraving.

The same year that Whittredge painting his image, another artist made a drawing showing the Rockies from Denver, but with totally different intent. A.E. Mathews, who had produced a number of lithographs of the Civil War, moved to Colorado in 1865. He began to make prints of Colorado scenes, which in 1866 he gathered together and issued in a portfolio entitled Pencil Sketches of Colorado.

This portfolio included 36 plates, one of which showed Denver from a rise about one mile to the east of the city, with the Rockies prominently displayed in the background. In contrast to Whittredge's intent, Mathews was definitely trying to show the "progress" being made in Colorado, with Denver City shown neatly laid out and with some impressive looking buildings. However, in the text which accompanied the portfolio, Mathews makes it clear that "the principal object [of the view] being to show the eastern slope of the mountains in connection with the city."

He goes on to describe this view:
"So clear and pure is the air on the plains, that the mountains can be distinctly seen 175 miles off. The Rocky Mountains assume new, peculiar, and beautiful features almost every day and hour, according to the condition of the atmosphere and position of the sun. Sometimes on a bright moonlight night, or just before sunrise, the rocks, canons and trees stand out so distinctly that the mountains appear to be but a mile or two from Denver...When the air is clearer than usual, a most beautiful effect is seen just as the light of the sun has left the western horizon; the horizon is lighted up by a soft, cool, silvery light, caused by the sun shining on the western slow of the snow-covered mountains. The beauty of the sky and clouds in Colorado, especially in summer, rivals that of Italy."

These comments are right on, for every day the Rockies appear in a different and remarkable aspect. I love all of the prints above, but the real scene (which I get to see every day) beats them all.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Shaping the Trans-Mississippi West: 1840-1849. Part 1: Oregon

As discussed in the previous blog, in 1839, in the United States west of the Mississippi there were only three states, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri. The remainder of the trans-Mississippi region was comprised of the territory of Iowa, consisting of the lands north of the state of Missouri lying between the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, and a large, unorganized Indian territory taking up the remainder of the old Louisiana Purchase, that is the lands between the three states and Iowa and the continental divide. The next decade was one of profound change for the United States, not only with new borders and states being established, but the size of the country increasing by about half-again as much.

While these three states and two territories were officially the extent of the United States, that was not all the land claimed by the country in 1840. The vast area lying to the north of Mexico and west of the continental divide, called by the Americans the Oregon Country, was in theory jointly administered by Great Britain and the United States, but by 1840, Americans were thinking that this was of necessity a part of their country.

The Treaty of 1818, between Great Britain and the United States, established the northern border of the United States for the lands gained by the Louisiana Purchase, with each country giving up a bit of land to the other. By the treaty, the border ran due south from the northwestern point of Lake of the Woods to the 49th parallel, and from thence straight west to the crest of the “Stony Mountains,” that is, the continental divide in the Rocky Mountains.

The treaty did not, however, continue the border west of the continental divide, for both sides felt that they had a strong claim to the lands between Mexico and Russian America. This area, called by the Americans the Oregon Country—-the British called it the Columbia District—-was the focus of a long simmering conflict between Great Britain and the United States.

For many years, the Pacific Northwest had been subject to differing claims by several countries—the British, Spanish, Russians and Americans. The Spanish claimed most of the land along the western coast of America based on their explorations in the 18th century. At the end of the century, Spain did grant Britain some rights in the area, but it wasn’t until the 1819 Adams-Onis Treaty, between the United States and Spain, that the latter agreed to a north border for its lands at the 42nd parallel. About the same time, Russia gave up its claims south of 54°40′.

This left the large area west of the continental divide and between 54°40′ and 42° to be disputed between Great Britain and the United States. Britain claimed the area because of its early exploration along the coast and because of overland explorations by British fur company men. The United States claimed the area because of Robert Gray’s discovery of the Columbia River in 1792 and the Lewis & Clark expedition, which reached Oregon Country in 1805.

Negotiations for the Treaty of 1818 did not resolve the dispute between the two countries for this area west of the continental divide.. The British saw this as a rich fur region and one that would limit the territorial expansion of the United States. The Americans saw Oregon as part of the natural lands that should be part of the United States by manifest destiny. Thus is was agreed that the region would have "joint occupancy" by the two countries.

This “solution” would not, of course, work in the long run. Initially, it was mostly British fur traders who were in the area, but in the 1830s, missionaries and settlers from the United States began to trickle into Oregon, the emigration reaching a steady stream in the 1840s. This lead to strong American support for annexing the entire Oregon Country, which was countered by British insistence of their control of all the lands north of the Columbia River. Neither country wanted to go to war (especially the United States which had just entered a war with Mexico, as will be discussed in the next blog in this series), so a compromise was reached in June 1846 to establish the border between the countries along the 49th parallel, extending this line across the continental divide from the east.

Thus it was in the fourth decade of the nineteenth century, the United States gained its northwest corner, encompassing today’s states of Oregon, Washington, Idaho and those parts of Montana and Wyoming west of the continental divide. This region was left as unorganized until 1848, when it established as the Oregon Territory, retaining this configuration until 1853. It was in this same decade, that the country also gained its southwest corner, as will be discussed in the next blog in this series.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

With a French Accent

Next week a really interesting print exhibition will open at the Davis Museum at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. Entitled With A French Accent. French and American Lithography Before 1860, it will run from March 14th through June 3rd. On display in the Morelle Lasky Levine '56 Works on Paper Gallery, the exhibition is free and open to the public. 

The exhibition is a joint project between the Davis Museum and the American Antiquarian Society. I have written many times in this blog about the AAS, one of the greatest and oldest American institutions with major collections of prints. The Davis Museum brings its own impressive credentials to this partnership. It is one of the oldest academic fine arts museums in the country, founded in 1889. It has an excellent permanent collection of paintings, sculptures, decorative objects and works on paper, and regularly holds fine exhibitions on many topics, including this new one on prints.

With a French Accent features about fifty French and American prints from the collections of the AAS, exploring the French roots of American lithography. The debt of American lithographs to the British is obvious and seminal, but French prints have had an equally important impact. This is a topic I have been interested in for quite some time (especially as related to the slightly “erotic” Currier & Ives prints based on French sources), so I am greatly looking forward to visiting this exhibition.

It is curated by Georgia Brady Barnhill ’66, Director of the Center for Historic American Visual Culture, and Lauren B. Hewes, Andrew W. Mellon Curator of Graphic Arts, both of the American Antiquarian Society. As they state, the exhibition, and an accompanying publication, “uncover several themes: the importance of French technology, the circulation and reproduction of French imagery, the stylistic contributions of French lithographic artists, and the reproduction of American genre paintings by French publishers for distribution in Europe and the United States." Note that the latter point shows that the influence, at least to some extent, flowed both ways across the Atlantic.

The exhibit opens next week, and I believe the book will be out at about the same time, but of equal interest is the related March 31st symposium, "French and American Lithography: History and Practice," also a free, public event. This will be co-hosted by the Davis Museum and the Center for Historic American Culture at the AAS. The symposium will “explore transnational interconnection, particularly the impact on American lithography of artistic exchange between France and the United States through the 19th and 20th centuries and into contemporary practice."

The symposium will be terrific, but even if you cannot make that, anyone interested in American historical prints should make a point to visit the exhibition at Wesseley.