'Nature & National Identity' in New Bedford

Exhibit highlights importance of 19th century landscape painters, including New Bedford native Bierstadt, in the preservation of America's natural wonders and the creation of the National Park System.


While New Bedford's arguably most famous son Ishmael is neither a real person nor actually from the whaling city, fans of 19th century American landscape painters will point to native son Albert Bierstadt as the man who should be the city's most famous export. Ironically, Bierstadt's legacy has little to do with whaling but, along with his contemporaries, everything to do with romanticizing the American West and ultimately inspiring the creation of the National Parks System.

Born in Germany in 1830, Bierstadt came to New Bedford with his parents at the age of one. He reportedly showed great artistic aptitude as a child, and traveled to Germany for a handful of years in his mid-20's to study painting. On his return he began painting full-time and turned his attention to large-scale landscapes, becoming affiliated with the Hudson River School of luminous landscape painters, which included Frederick Edwin Church, Thomas Cole, and Asher B. Durand.

During the period of Westward Expansion, Bierstadt took several trips to the American west, joining expeditions, making sketches, and painting the landscapes in his studio on his return. These paintings—and those of Bierstadt's contemporaries—were revelatory to most Americans, who had never seen such dramatic vistas. They were the impetus for preservation movements and ultimately inspired the creation of the National Park System.

With the National Park Service celebrating it's 100th year in 2016, officials at the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park approached the New Bedford Art Museum and New Bedford Free Public Library about staging an exhibit underscoring Bierstadt's role in shaping American attitudes about the natural landscape. Janice Hodson of the New Bedford Free Public Library, is serving as curator. Other partners in the exhibition include the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Destination New Bedford, the Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum, the Trustees of Reservations, and SouthCoast Today.

"Much of the exhibit, which features five grand, romantic large-scale landscapes, was sourced from the collection of the New Bedford Free Public Library," says Jamie Uretsky, Exhibition Manager for the New Bedford Museum of Art. "With its history as a whaling port, many wealthy art patrons made New Bedford home over the years, so the city has a good-sized art collection. Much of it is curated at the public library."

The collaborative exhibit contains Bierstadts sourced from the collections of several other parks and historic sites, as well as two pieces that are being shown publicly for the first time. One that was found in the attic of a family home and happily discovered to be an unknown Bierstadt work, and another from a private collection that was offered by the owner this past spring, when he happened to learn of the upcoming show. The exhibit also contains relevant works including a handful of Ansel Adams photographs, Thomas Cole etchings, and reproduction Thomas Moran watercolors.

By the time Bierstadt died in 1902, romanticized landscape works had fallen out of favor, and he was a relative unknown. But his portfolio, and that of the other Hudson River School artists, received renewed attention with the environmental movement of the 1960's, and their work has remained at the forefront of American art ever since.

"Bierstadt: Nature & Natural Identitity" will be on display at the New Bedford Art Museum, 608 Pleasant St., New Bedford, through September 18. For more information, call 508/961-3072 or visit newbedfordart.org.


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