Our own Morgan Meis in The Smart Set:
The elk are looking right at us. There are three of them down there at the bottom left-hand side of the painting (and the hazy forms of more elk further off, in the distance of the meadow). A stream curves around a copse of trees to the left of the elk. The sheer cliff of a mountain rises above. The sun is glowing in its setting just beyond the trees. It is a moment of intense beauty at Hetch Hetchy Canyon.
The painting “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” was created by Albert Bierstadt in 1875. Bierstadt was once the most famous painter in America. Along with Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, he’s a central figure in the Hudson River School of painting. These painters favored landscapes. They captured American nature in its grandiosity. Bierstadt’s “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” records a scene in a remote area near Yosemite in California.
The painting now lives in Massachusetts, at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. It was also recently on display as the centerpiece of an exhibit called “Albert Bierstadt and the Legacy of Concern.” Bierstadt’s painting was the first painting ever purchased by the museum, inaugurating its collection. On the face of it, the painting is a strange choice to inaugurate the collection of a museum in Massachusetts. What does a remote canyon way out west have to do with Massachusetts?
The answer is Emerson. In 1875, Ralph Waldo Emerson was still alive. He was living out his final years in Concord, Massachusetts. 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.