In an age when public curiosity fueled interest in the unknown and the notion of Manifest Destiny swept the nation, Albert Bierstadt’s primary motivation was to transcribe the glorious and unblemished world that he witnessed during his travels. In his powerful and striking works, Bierstadt sought to convey his impression of the American landscape and manipulate atmospheric effects in order to heighten them to that of the sublime. Mount Hood, Oregon manifests Bierstadt’s greatest gift as an artist, his ability to transfer his personal sense of wonderment to the viewer through his adept use of perspective, light, color and composition.
Soaring over 11,200 feet, Mount Hood is the highest point in the state of Oregon. The mountain acquired its modern name in 1792, when British naval officer William Broughton saw the peak and named it after British admiral Lord Samuel Hood. Not long after, in 1805, Lewis and Clark would spot the snow-covered summit during their Western expedition. It would be another 58 years before Bierstadt would behold the majesty of Mount Hood.
Bierstadt's 1863 journey marked his second visit to the American West and provided him the pictorial material used to create some of his most successful works. Accompanied by Fitz Hugh Ludlow, a prominent figure in New York literary circles, Bierstadt traveled along the southern route arriving in San Francisco in July. After several days in the city, Bierstadt and Ludlow, joined by Enoch Wood Perry and Virgil Williams, first forayed to Yosemite where they stayed for seven weeks. After briefly returning to San Francisco, Bierstadt and Ludlow set out for Oregon with plans to extend their journey into Canada. While the full extent of the trip was not entirely realized, Bierstadt was able, during his time in Oregon, to travel up the Columbia River and produce a myriad of sketches depicting Mount Hood. Ludlow noted, “After a night’s rest, Bierstadt spent nearly the entire morning making studies of Hood from an admirable post of observation at the top of the highest foot-hills,--a point several miles southwest of the town, which he reached under the guidance of an old Indian interpreter and trapper. His work upon this mountain was in some respect the best he ever accomplished…” (as quoted in N.K. Anderson, "Wondrously Full of Invention: The Western Landscapes of Albert Bierstadt," in Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1990, p. 85)
Soon after this excursion, Bierstadt returned to New York. Linda Ferber writes, “Though he clearly recognized the scenic gold mine he had found in Yosemite Valley, Bierstadt turned to another subject for his first major exhibition picture following his return from the Pacific Coast. Choosing Mount Hood, Oregon’s volcanic peak as his subject, Bierstadt may have taken his cue, once again, from Frederic Church, who had begun to exhibit Cotopaxi (1862, The Detroit Institute of Arts), shortly before Bierstadt’s departure for California.” (Albert Bierstadt, Art and Enterprise, p. 84) It took Bierstadt nearly a full year to complete the monumental Mount Hood, Oregon (1865, Southwest Museum, Los Angeles, California), and the painting was met with near universal acclaim. The work became so popular that that in 1869 Bierstadt painted a smaller version of it, which is now in the Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Oregon.
Painted circa 1860s, the present work, also titled Mount Hood, Oregon, is a more intimate depiction of the stunning landscape. Here, Mount Hood stands as a triumphant peak guarded by the precipitous battlements of basalt, seemingly untouched by the world over which it presides. Meanwhile, a single boat travels through the calm waters of the Columbia River, leaving a subtle wake in the otherwise undisturbed surface. In the foreground two fishermen tend to their boats, shrouded in the shadows that blanket the shore. As in some of Bierstadt’s best work, the thoughtful placement of man within a quiet yet dynamic environment of land, water and sky invites the viewer to join the peaceful perception of the American scenery. In this work, Bierstadt paints the details of the trees, rocks and water with an eye towards creating an utterly placid, naturalistic scene. An almost spiritual, pink light suffuses the composition, further enriching the scene and the overall tranquility of the composition.
As exemplified by Mount Hood, Oregon, Bierstadt's majestic paintings of the American West manifest the profound veneration and wonder that the artist maintained for nature. In summarizing Bierstadt’s achievement, Gordon Hendricks writes that “his successes envelop us with the beauty of nature, its sunlight, its greenness, its mist, 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…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)