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Toolbox Library, primary resources thematically organized with notes and discussion questionsOnline Seminars, professional development seminars for history and literature teachersThe Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Topic: MemoryTopic: ProgressTopic: PeopleTopic: PowerTopic: Empire
Topic: Memory: Civil War Memory and American Nostalgia
Toolbox Overview: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Resource Menu: Memory
Text 1. Winslow Homer
Text 2. Hamlin Garland
Text 3. Joel Chandler Harris
Text 4. Jane Addams
Text 5. Robert G. Ingersoll
Text 6. Re-Union and the Railroad
Text 7. Visions of the West
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Text 8. Owen Wister

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Reading Guide
Visions of the West Discussing Art
- Thomas Cole, View from Mount Holyoke, Northampton, Massachusetts, after a Thunderstorm—The Oxbow, oil on canvas, 1836
- Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Mountains, oil on canvas, ca. 1870
- Frederic Edwin Church, Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford in 1636, oil on canvas, 1846
- Albert Bierstadt, The Oregon Trail, oil on canvas, 1869

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Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Mountains
Storm in the Mountains

In the early nineteenth century visual artists began to define American national identity through landscape painting. Lacking such markers of ancient heritage as ruins and castles, Americans defined themselves through the nature they saw all around them, finding distinction and prominence in their forests, mountains, canyons, and cataracts. At first, of course, artists focused on the landscape of the East, but by the 1830s that Eden had been lost to industry. After the Civil War, once the issue of nationhood had been resolved, the West became the locus of the national soul. To explore what this shift from east to west meant for representations of national identity, we invite you to compare two sets of thematically related landscapes, one painted before the War, one after.

Born in England in 1801, Thomas Cole and his family immigrated to Philadelphia in 1818, where he taught himself to paint. In 1825 he moved to New York and found a market for his landscapes and sketches. Cole introduced the sublime and the idea of the picturesque landscape to America. In his work he tried to capture a vanishing arcadia. The View from Mount Holyoke is typical. It depicts a sunlit, placid valley and a silvery oxbow lake swept by a thunderstorm.

When Cole died in 1848, the mantle of American landscape painting passed to his student Frederick Edwin Church. His Hooker and Company is the first representation of Manifest Destiny in American art. Thomas Hooker, a Puritan divine who escaped persecution in England by fleeing to Massachusetts, left Massachusetts in 1636 over a dispute about voting. He founded Hartford, which became the nucleus of the Connecticut Colony. The painting shows him leading his congregation through a bright pristine wilderness.

If Cole introduced Manifest Destiny into American art on a minor chord, Albert Bierstadt carried it to a crescendo. Born in Germany in 1830, his family came to New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he was two. At twenty-three he returned to Germany to study art and upon his return claimed the West as his subject. To considerable popular acclaim he offered his audiences paintings like Storm in the Mountains—grand, melodramatic views of Rockies and other Western peaks. On one of his Western excursions he encountered a party of German immigrants making their way to Oregon. So moved was he by the experience that he captured their journey in The Oregon Trail—men, covered wagons, horses, cattle lumbering across a valley floor lit by a resplendent golden sunset. According to critic Lee Mitchell, his paintings assert "a transformative power for a distinctly national landscape identified with the Far West." The vogue for his style was short-lived. Reaching its zenith in the mid 1860s, it waned by the mid 1870s. 2 pages.

Discussion questions
  1. What does the light suggest in each painting?
  2. What emotions does each landscape evoke?
  3. Why would audiences be drawn to Bierstadt's "transformative" landscapes in the wake of the Civil War?
  4. How does the definition of America offered in the antebellum landscapes differ from that offered in the landscapes painted after the Civil War?
  5. In what ways do Garland's "The Return of a Private" and Wister's The Virginian (See below.) comment upon Bierstadt's representation of the West?

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Topic Framing Questions
  •  In the aftermath of the Civil War, how did Americans look back and look forward?
  •  During this period, how did Americans promote the re-union of the nation?
  •  How did they reconceptualize their sense of national identity?

Toolbox: The Gilded and the Gritty: America, 1870-1912
Memory | Progress | People | Power | Empire

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Revised: May 2005