Mountain Brook

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Mountain Brook
Albert Bierstadt
Oil on canvas
44 x 35 15/16 in.
The Art Institute of Chicago
Restricted gift of Mrs. Herbert Alexander Vance

Mountain Brook depicts a quiet woodland scene in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Doesn’t it look peaceful? How can this be related to the Civil War? It makes quite a contrast to the war that was raging across the country. Albert Bierstadt was well aware of the violence of the conflict, since he traveled with the Union army in 1861–1862 and painted a number of battle scenes. However, like other landscape painters at the time, such as Thomas Moran, Bierstadt might have wanted to provide a retreat from the war by depicting its opposite. First, the artist draws our eye along a mountain stream and into the heart of the forest. Pine, maple, and birch trees form a natural ceiling that is pierced by a hazy, golden light. The white ribbon of the stream, the sun’s reflection off the boulder, and the brief glimpse of blue sky draw our attention from the depths of the forest to the colorful foreground. Can you find the blue-and-white kingfisher, perched on the edge of a fallen tree trunk? On the one hand, this small, delicately painted bird emphasizes the change from the vast background to the more intimate foreground, helping us grasp the grand scale of the wilderness. On the other hand, Bierstadt may also have included the kingfisher to highlight Mountain Brook’s connection to the war. Birds frequently appeared in poetry and landscape painting to represent nature’s silent beauty; during the war, they symbolized nature as a silent witness to battlefield devastation.

1. How has the artist invited us into this scene? What would it feel, smell, and sound like? What path would you take through the space? Compare this painting to A Harvest of Death, Gettysburg and answer the same questions.

2. In the nineteenth century, the American landscape was a very powerful symbol of national identity. Select two or three images of the landscape from this website and compare them to consider the way the geography in the images defined a “landscape of the Civil War.”

Further reading:
Barter, Judith A. et al. American Arts at the Art Institute of Chicago: From Colonial Times to World War I. New York: Hudson Hills Press. 1998.

Miller, Angela. “Albert Bierstadt, Landscape Aesthetics, and the Meanings of the West in the Civil War Era.” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no.1 (2001): 40–59.

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