Albert Bierstadt's paintings of the untamed American West are some of the most significant historical and artistic accomplishments of the nineteenth century. While other artists had made expeditions throughout the area as early as the 1830s, few could rival Bierstadt in his ability to convey the grandeur of this wondrous region to the American public. Painted from sketches of his first trip west in 1859, Indians Spear Fishing depicts an expansive landscape populated only by three Native Americans in a canoe in the lower right corner. The light is vivid and the landscape dramatic, emphasizing Bierstadt's vision of a pristine West.
In 1859 Bierstadt traveled the frontier with Colonel Frederick Lander's U.S. Government Expedition. Traveling along the Platte River to the Wind River Mountains, the artist witnessed the grandeur and beauty of the unspoiled western landscape. By September, Bierstadt returned to New York with a surplus of sketches, photographs and Native American artifacts, taking a space at the Tenth Street Studio Building with other artists of the Hudson River School such as Frederic Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Herbert Haseltine, Emanuel Leutze and Worthington Whittredge. He filled his studio with props and extensive souvenirs from the West. One visitor wrote that the room was "adorned with buffalo robes, blankets, feathers, arrows, moccasins, and all the equipments and paraphernalia of the hunter and the Indian of the Rocky Mountains." (as quoted in N.K. Anderson, "Wondrously Full of Invention: The Western Landscapes of Albert Bierstadt" in Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, New York, 1990, p. 74)
The remarkable and raw American landscape captivated Bierstadt, who described it in one of the many letters he sent back east for publication in the art magazine, The Crayon: "If you can form any idea of the scenery of the Rocky Mountains and of our life in this region, from what I have to write, I shall be very glad; there is indeed enough to write about--a writing lover of nature and Art could not wish for a better subject. I am delighted with the scenery...In the valleys, silvery streams abound with mossy rocks and an abundance of that finny tribe that we all delight so much to catch, the trout. We see many spots in the scenery that remind us of our New Hampshire and Catskill hills, but when we look up and measure the mighty perpendicular cliffs that rise hundreds of feet aloft, all capped with snow, we then realize that we are among a different class of mountains; and especially when we see the antelope stop to look at us, and still more the Indian, his pursuer, who often stands dismayed to see a white man sketching alone in the midst of his hunting grounds." (as quoted in G. Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1974, p. 70) In the New Bedford Daily Mercury, Bierstadt praised the Western landscape, writing that "For the most part, the weather has been delightful, and such beautiful cloud formations, such fine effects of light and shade, and play of cloud shadows across the hills, such golden sunsets. I have never before seen. Our own country has the best material for the artist in the world." (as quoted in Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, p. 86)
With dramatic light and remarkable detail, Bierstadt has transcribed the glorious elements that he witnessed and the serenity of an unblemished wilderness in Indians Spear Fishing of 1862. The strong horizontals of the river and landscape are balanced by the sturdy verticals of the towering cliffs. Although the layers of the composition help organize the painting into horizontal bands, the open view allows an easy movement through the canyon. An almost spiritual light brings to this terrain a majesty and purity lending the overall composition the feeling of a divinely inspired Garden of Eden. In the crystalline air, Bierstadt paints the details of the figures, the reflection in the water, the waterfall through the jagged cliffs and trees lining the mountain with an eye towards creating an utterly placid, naturalistic scene of western splendor. The light hitting the intricately detailed figures and shore in the immediate foreground carry the viewer's eye around the bend of the river to a hazier, cloud enshrouded mountain, suggestive of unending natural beauty, emphasized by the reflection of the landscape in the water. In the present painting, Bierstadt painted three Native Americans in a canoe to contrast with the towering cliffs above them and the expansive landscape. Although he often chose to paint landscapes without figures, in this work, Bierstadt uses them to effectively emphasize the magnificence and power of nature while capturing an image of the native residents he found so fascinating.
After viewing one of Bierstadt's paintings, a writer for The Crayon commented on his success at presenting the largely unexplored frontier, "The scenery of this section of our territory has for a long time been a matter of curiosity to lovers of landscape, who have been excited yet not satisfied by the vague and contradictory reports of explorers. Through the better expression of the brush we can now form some idea of it, Mr. Bierstadt's pencil being true and too powerful to be questioned." ("Wondrously Full of Invention: The Western Landscapes of Albert Bierstadt" in Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, p. 74) Among these achievements is Indians Spear Fishing, which transends Bierstadt's ouevre for its beauty and monumentality.
Collectors, critics and the public at large found immediate appeal in Bierstadt's expansive compositions of the American West such as Indians Spear Fishing. These impressive works provided for Easterners a panoramic view of the West that was undergoing rapid exploration and that was the topic of considerable interest. This audience was stunned by the landscape's magnificence and they delighted in the artist's interpretation of these panoramic views. A capable promoter of his own work, Linda Ferber notes, "Bierstadt effectively appropriated the American West, tapping public curiosity and excitement about these remote national territories. This interest was fueled, even during the apprehensive years of the Civil War, by the powerful idea of Manifest Destiny. The prevalent belief that Americans were divinely ordained masters of the continent lent special significance to Bierstadt's choice of subjects." ("Albert Bierstadt: The History of a Reputation" in Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, p. 25)
Bierstadt's synthesis of the broadly monumental and the finely detailed, places his work among the most successful expressions of nature. This expression, through Bierstadt's attention to detail and evocation of light, harmoniously brings together the spiritual and natural world. Like no artist before him, Bierstadt established himself as the pre-eminent painter with both the technique and the talent to convey the powerful visual impact of the Western landscape, to capture the mammoth scale of the open spaces, and to begin to interpret this new American landscape in a manner equal to its majesty. In summarizing Bierstadt's achievement, Gordon Hendricks wrote that "his successes envelop us with the beauty of nature, its sunlight, its greenness, its mists, its subtle shades, its marvelous freshness. All of these Bierstadt felt deeply. Often he was able, with the struggle that every artist knows, to put his feelings on canvas. When he succeeded in what he was trying to do--to pass along some of this own passion for the wildness and beauty of the new West--he was as good as any landscapist in the history of American art." (Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1973, p. 10)