Sunday, June 20, 2010


In 1863, artist Albert Bierstadt and writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow left New York on an expedition into the great American wilderness. Bierstadt dreamed of painting spectacular western landscapes while Ludlow planned to write about them.

The two men also had something to work out between them: Bierstadt was in love with Ludlow's wife, Rosalie.

The men traveled together for nearly nine months. They picked up fresh supplies in Kansas and followed the Overland Trail, working their way through Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and into what would one day become Yosemite National Park.

Nobody knows for sure what the two men discussed around the campfire at night, but things must have gotten a little testy in Colorado when they discovered a beautiful 14,000 foot mountain and Bierstadt named it after Ludlow's wife.

Bierstadt is reputed to be the first man ever to climb Mount Rosalie.

The travelers reached the west coast before winter. They found a steamer ship in San Francisco that returned them to New York, where Rosalie waited apprehensively.

Both men returned home steadfastly in love with Rosalie. Unfortunately for Ludlow, he also loved hashish (his most famous book was the classic account, The Hasheesh Eater). As drugs took an increasing toll on Ludlow's life, Rosalie turned to Bierstadt for comfort. Ludlow's cousin wrote at the time,

[Ludlow] is a pretty fellow to be cursing poor Rose. Whatever she may have done is no excuse for him and if he had done as he should she never would have been so fond of the attentions of other men. I don't entirely excuse her, but I will stand up for her against him. I have no patience with him.
Ludlow continued to work on his book about their expedition while Bierstadt worked on immense paintings of the landscapes he had witnessed. His masterpiece was, "Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie."

In 1866, the year that Bierstadt unveiled his painting of her mountain, Rosalie divorced Ludlow and married Bierstadt. The embittered Ludlow removed every reference to Bierstadt's name from the manuscript of his book.

Bierstadt and Rosalie went on to lead a happy life together. They traveled the world and the successful painter opened studios in London, Paris and Rome. Years later, Bierstadt took Rosalie back to California on the newly built railroad, returning over some of the same ground he had traversed on horseback and by foot as a young artist.

If you look for Mount Rosalie today, you won't find anything resembling Bierstadt's painting. For one thing, after Rosalie died the Colorado state legislature renamed the mountain for the governor of Colorado, John Evans. (As surely as rain erodes mountains, bureaucrats and politicians follow in the wake of lovers and pioneers, eroding all romantic gestures and leveling all artistic achievements).

But apart from that, you won't find the mountain because Bierstadt's landscape was largely imagined. He painted accurate studies on site, but then exaggerated and romanticized them back in his studio. He combined waterfalls from one location with cliffs from a second and mountains from a third. For added drama he sometimes inserted fog, mist or dark storm clouds.

In Bierstadt's famous painting, you can see that he envisioned Mount Rosalie as a radiant heaven beckoning from beyond the clouds in the the upper left hand corner of the picture:

But a photograph of Mt. Evans today conveys a different feeling:

Geologists could tell that Bierstadt's paintings were composites, and art critics faulted him for concocting landscapes in his studio rather than capturing reality on the trail.

It's true that the farther an artist gets from his subject (whether the subject is a mountain or a girl) the harder it becomes to retain all the raw data about the subject. Factual details begin to drop out, to be replaced by imagination and thoughts and feelings. This digestive process is what helps us find the larger poetry around us. It's what makes relationships a shared reality.

After the first three or four months on the trail thinking about Rosalie (imagine-- no letters, no skype, no sexting!) it's not surprising that Bierstadt began to see her in the mountains, or in the wildflowers or in the moon. I'd wager that both Bierstadt and Ludlow were baying at that moon before their trip was through.

How important are the factual details about the artist's subject? Bierstadt painted Mt. Rosalie more with his heart than his eyes, but that doesn't mean the result was less accurate than the photographs of Rosalie or Mount Evans. Bierstadt's idealized image of Rosalie as a pristine white land of flowing waterfalls may have been more real than the mundane facts about her that have dropped away with time. It may have been more more true than Rosalie's own memory of her mistakes and sins.

Contrary to the art critics who faulted Bierstadt for painting landscapes back in his studio, I think Bierstadt did create the most important part of his Mt. Rosalie painting-- the part that he painted with his heart-- during those long, thoughtful nights on the trail.

No comments:

Post a Comment