Art Environmental History History Nature

“Giant Redwood Trees of California” by Albert Bierstadt: Sublime Art, The American Frontier, and The History of Redwood Trees

Albert Bierstadt painted "Giant Redwood Trees of California" during a pivotal point in American history.

A LONG, LONG TIME AGO, PLANTS AND ANIMALS WERE PEOPLE. So the Southern Pomo and Coast Miwok story goes. One of those was Coyote, who made the world from the Sonoma Mountaintop. The elders of Coyote’s village became giant redwood trees, and they were coloured blood-red to remind everyone that we are all intertwined. If you look towards the west coast, you can still see the red giants standing.

Greg Sarris, chairman of the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, tells this and other powerful tales alongside his collection of essays which underline the similarities between the mistreatment and genocide of coastal Indigenous peoples and the logging of redwood forests. It is estimated that up to 96% of California’s giant redwoods were logged. Sarris accounts that for the Indigenous people the rate of survival – at 0.07% – was even more dismal. As vast stretches of redwoods were logged for the expansion of America, so too were the native people forced off of their land and subjected to slavery, abuse, and genocide.

“Giant Redwood Trees of California” by Albert Bierstadt

In “Giant Redwood Trees of California”, Albert Bierstadt paints a near magical landscape with soft lighting as a dominant feature. Our eyes are immediately drawn in to the depth and richness of this ancient redwood forest and specifically to the tree that is aglow with gilded light. The light gives us a small glimpse of the textures in the bark, but it is not so detailed as to distract. The Native Americans in the painting are small, and even more so dwarfed by the giant redwood trees around them. They act as a suggestion to the sheer size of the forest. The viewer might also get the sense that the landscape goes on and on forever – this makes us contemplate the immensity and boundlessness of nature.

Giant Redwood Trees of California, Albert Bierstadt, 1874

Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902), a German-American painter, was known for his magnificent paintings of the western landscape on the American frontier. The immigrant artist learned his theatrical style of painting while studying in Dusseldorf, where other qualities such as good composition and realistic depictions were also salient. Being a dominant figure in the Hudson River School, Bierstadt painted with a Luminist approach.

Luminism and Transcendentalist Literature

THE LUMINIST STYLE USES LIGHT THAT APPEARS TO SUFFUSE A SCENE. This creates a soft afterglow effect, as can be seen in “Giant Redwood Trees of California”. Luminist paintings used tonal modulations instead of brushstrokes to create this radiant light effect. They also tended to depict observed natural phenomena such as a quiet landscape. Luminist art has a certain clarity which allows the viewer to experience the scene without distraction. Overall Luminism was contemplative as a result, and it has ties to the Transcendentalist literature of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson suggested that nature is permeated by God or the divine, and that to fully appreciate nature, we must experience solitude in nature, where we will find our spirit.

I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.

Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1836.

Romanticism, The Sublime, and American Frontier Landscapes

THE ART OF THIS PERIOD WAS SPELLBOUND BY THE NATURAL WORLD. Romanticism played a role in artists’ affections for nature. Romantics spoke of the sublime – a sense of awe and reverence beyond rational thought, which could be experienced by witnessing the marvels of the cosmos. It was the place where emotions (internal-subjective) meet the natural world (external-objective). Since the sublime is both emotional and ineffable in nature, it was best expressed through art such as paintings, poetry, and music. Albert Bierstadt was certainly no stranger to this notion, as his paintings illustrated American landscapes with breathtaking grandeur. Oh, his art was sublime:

Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail, oil on canvas, Albert Bierstadt, ca. 1873

This art was being created during the same time as the great Westward Expansion, when adventurers, miners, traders and other settlers were rapidly encroaching on the western coast in a series of territorial acquisitions. American expansion of this time was rooted in the notion of Manifest Destiny. This was the idea that white settlers were destined by God to expand their territories and spread their ideologies. It was also the driving force behind the relocation, massacre, and mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, Hispanic, and other non-Europeans who lived in the American frontier.

What was the American Frontier?

The American frontier could be classified in multiple ways. Simplified, it was the zone in which Euro-Americans had not settled yet. It was also referred to as the:

“belt of territory sparsely occupied by Indian traders, hunters, miners, ranchmen, backwoodsmen and adventurers of all sorts”

Historian Frederick Jackson Turner explains in “The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, 1893.

The notion was that in the west, there were still lands that were unclaimed where people could find their fortune and a place to call their own. Although it was marketed as free land, it wasn’t really theirs to take to begin with. It belonged to the coastal Indigenous peoples. In fact, the Pacific Northwest was once home to the most densely populated Indigenous peoples. However, this continual expansion westward was a crucial point in understanding America’s development. The American frontier was the meeting point between wilderness and civilization.

“The United States lies like a huge page in the history of society. Line by line as we read from west to east we find the record of social evolution.
It begins with the Indian and the hunter; it goes on to tell of the disintegration of savagery by the entrance of the trader, the pathfinder of civilization; we read the annals of the pastoral stage in ranch life; the exploitation of the soil by the raising of unrotated crops of corn and wheat in sparsely settled farming communities; the intensive culture of the denser farm settlement; and finally the manufacturing organization with city and factory system.“

“The Significance of the Frontier in American History”, Frederick Jackson Turner, 1893.

How Did Albert Bierstadt’s Art Portray Nature and Indigenous Peoples?

Albert Bierstadt took part in many of these westward journeys in order to create his paintings. In one sense, his paintings glorified the American western landscape. It was portrayed as an epic land of promise and natural wonder, and his art’s popularity was even criticized at one point for his dramatic use of lighting and Romanticism. However, Bierstadt’s art also brought wildlife conservation into light, and his artwork is now seen in a new historical context. He gave special and unique importance to Native Americans in his paintings, and showed an empathy for their cultures. However, his artwork ultimately still helped to entice European and American emigrants to move and settle in the west, which did not happen in a peaceful or sustainable way.

The Birth of National Parks and Redwood Tree Conservation

By the mid-1800s, giant sequoia trees had already gained worldwide fame by exhibitions at the Crystal Palace in New York City and London (1855). At the same time, the San Francisco Bay area had built commercial sawmills for redwood logging. The logging of redwoods became widespread, and already in the 1840s – 1860s, redwoods became a cause for conservation concern.

“The Mother of the Forest”, the mammoth tree from California, as exhibited in the London Crystal Palace in 1856.

In 1864, America’s first state-controlled park was born – Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Big Tree Grove. This was only 10 years before Bierstadt painted the giant redwood trees of California. To protect the ancient trees, Sequoia National Park was established by 1890, and it became California’s first national park. Only a week later, state-controlled Yosemite became a national park as well. Albert Bierstadt’s painting of the redwoods may have played a role in helping the trees to gain protection.

Redwood Trees Today

Today there is a complex of national and state parks along the coast of northern California which are called the Redwood National and State Parks (RNSP). It has been designated a World Heritage Site by the United Nations for its rare ecosystem and rich cultural history. In 2017, the Save The Redwoods league made an easement which grants Indigenous people permanent access to an ancestral site to be used for ceremonies.

General Sherman and California Giant Sequoia Redwood Trees in Sequoia National Park,  miroslav_1/Getty Images.

REDWOOD TREES ARE CRUCIAL FOR A STABLE CLIMATE. Incredibly, new studies have shown that redwood trees capture more carbon (CO2) than any other trees on Earth. They photosynthesize and transfer carbon dioxide into clean oxygen. Because redwoods are so efficient at capturing carbon, it means that cutting down and burning redwood trees releases extra CO2 into the atmosphere. When deforestation accounts for a massive percentage of carbon dioxide emissions globally, it remains vital that we continue to conserve redwood trees.

Looking back on Albert Bierstadt’s painting of the redwood trees, we can clearly see how much he appreciated nature. His artwork evoked powerful imagery with which Bierstadt used to express his emotional response to the natural landscape of America, as well as to the Native American cultures he had contact with. What Albert Bierstadt saw was in part a representation of the ideas encompassing him, such as the sublimity of nature. He painted an “untouched” world which he found both mysterious and beautiful. Although his experience was more like that of a voyeur, his art played a part in encouraging people to appreciate the real subjects he painted. Bierstadt’s art is appreciated today for its abundance of historical themes and subjects.

“The magnificent beauty of the natural world is a manifestation of the mysterious natural laws that will be forever obscured from us.”

Albert Bierstadt

“Giant Redwood Trees of California” by Albert Bierstadt can be found in the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Berkshire County, Massachusetts, United Sates. The Berkshire Museum has a bright collection of art, natural science, regional history and ancient civilizations. It was established in 1903 by papermaker and philanthropist Zenas Crane.

This is part two in The Art of Trees series.
Part One

6 comments on ““Giant Redwood Trees of California” by Albert Bierstadt: Sublime Art, The American Frontier, and The History of Redwood Trees

  1. Pingback: The Art of Trees: Root of the Issue – NATURE MEETS MIND

  2. Fine essay on Bierstadt and the redwoods. I’ve admired Bierstadt’s paintings, and also those of Frederick Church and George Inness, for some time. I’m traveling to California soon, I should have a chance to see the redwoods and walk the Miwok trail in the Marin headlands.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tom! I’m certain you will enjoy your travels in California. It’s one of my favourite locations and it has some unique spots. Thank you for reading.


  3. Amazing information. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on West Coast Review and commented:
    A must read!


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