The Oregon Trail
The Oregon Trail is graced with “purple mountain majesty” and a red-tinged, blazing sunset in this quintessentially Romantic Landscape of the West. Artist Albert Bierstadt idealized the West by dramatizing its wide-open spaces, rocky ridges, and lush greenery with his adroit use of Luminism.
The technique combined depth, detail, and darkness to reflect not only the vastness of nature, but humanity’s place within it. The painting beckons us in to the tale of the determined spirit that this fifty-wagon party of emigrants depended upon for their journey of over 2,000 miles.
Bierstadt’s painted emigrants in The Oregon Trail were a group of Germans the artist happened upon during his expedition through the Rocky Mountain pass. This chance meeting affected Bierstadt immensely since his own family had emigrated from Germany when he was only a toddler. By immortalizing them in his sweeping panorama of the West, the artist gives us a point of reference that he himself could identify with.
This artist was part of the Hudson River School, a mid-nineteenth century group of Romantic Landscape painters, so named for the area in which the movement began. To create this highly theatrical style, Bierstadt often used inexact topography—while altering details and depth—to invoke the vastness of the wilds one could only find in the West.
Bierstadt’s oversized canvases were richly lavished with such breathtaking views—magnificent panoramas—that those who had seen these paintings were compelled to travel the West by train to witness it for themselves. However, it is rumored that when they finally reached the real West, the travelers were disappointed by the comparatively dull view.
This romantic idealization of the West is considered to be a response to the growing industrialization of America. The longing for the natural, unconfined beauty and boundless wonder of the pristine frontier was an inspiration that many of the Hudson River School could not ignore.