Albert Bierstadt's paintings depicting the grandeur of the American West are some of the most significant historical and artistic accomplishments of the nineteenth century. Other artists had made expeditions throughout the West as early as the 1830s, but Bierstadt was unrivaled in his ability to convey an image of this wondrous region to the American public. Painted from sketches of his trips in the late 1850s, Oregon Trail depicts an evening camp scene that demonstrates Bierstadt's exquisite attention to detail in rendering a complete narrative of the western landscape as an evolving American Eden.
As early as 1859 Bierstadt visited the famously rugged American West with Colonel Frederick Lander's U.S. Government Expedition. Traveling along the Platte River to the Wind River Mountains, the artist first witnessed the splendor and beauty of the unspoiled frontier. On May 5, 1859, Lander led his expedition to complete a wagon road between South Pass, Wyoming and Fort Hall, Idaho and to visually document the work being completed he commissioned Bierstadt and other artists to join the excursion. After forty-five days, the group arrived at South Pass, the entrance to the majestic Wind River mountain range and the start of Lander's Road and on July 4th crossed the Green River and into the valley of the Wasatch Mountains. In Oregon Trail Bierstadt has taken close studies executed during his travels to create a masterful studio work of the most compelling composition and dynamic narrative. Oregon Trail closely relates to other examples in the artist's oeuvre that combine to create a small but crucial body of multi-figural works that expand on the artist's theme of Manifest Destiny that he re-visited throughout his career, including Campfire (1863, Mead Art Museum, Amherst Massachusetts), Mountainous Landscape by Moonlight, (1871, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.) and The Oregon Trail (1869, The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio).
Collectors, critics and the public at large found immediate appeal in Bierstadt's expansive compositions of the American West such as Oregon Trail. These impressive works provided for Easterners a 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 intimate narratives set against panoramic views. Elements seen in Oregon Trail, such as the details in the lively camp scene and the dramatic and masterful use of light, provided further details which Bierstadt's Eastern audience came to enjoy and to expect in major compositions by the painter. A capable promoter of his own work, notes Linda Ferber, "Bierstadt effectively appropriated the American West, tapping public curiosity and excitement about these emote 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," Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, New York, 1990, p. 25).
Bierstadt's synthesis of the broadly monumental and the finely detailed, of grand scale and the intimate moment and infinitely varying forms, places his work among the most successful expressions of the many paradoxes 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 and grandeur.