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Battleground of the Eye - Page 2
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he back-of-beyond aspect of the Pacific Northwest heightened its romantic allure. Even after the Oregon Territory came within reach of the enterprising tourist, Washington and British Columbia remained comparatively remote. The famously grueling sea passage from Portland to Seattle was a serious deterrent, and it wasn't until James J. Hill's Northern Pacific Railroad at last arrived at its Tacoma terminus, in 1883, that Puget Sound became easily accessible to the casual traveler. In the meantime, a growing mystique attached itself to the area: people who had never been there spoke of it as the last resort of unspoiled wilderness, romantic solitude, and wild indigenous inhabitants.

It was the Indians who drew the Irish-Canadian painter Paul Kane to British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon on a long and adventurous trip in 1846-1847. But Kane's noble red men, alone with their primeval forest and steam-belching volcanic cones, are disappointingly generic, and look as if they stepped straight out of James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales. What Kane's pictures celebrate is, rather, the intrepidity of the artist—the solitary white man out in the Far West, ahead of the crowd, communing with primitive people in their natural state. His sketches and studio canvases document the progress of the artist as romantic hiker-hero. Kane's journey is the real subject; his Pacific Northwest is an adequately wild backdrop for a sequence of pictures in which one's attention instinctively fastens less on the land than on the personality of the painter.

In 1855, when the artist George Catlin was pushing sixty, he stopped in the Northwest, breaking a voyage that took him from Cape Horn to the Bering Sea. At the mouth of Clayoquot Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, then as wild a site as any in the region, he painted a prophetic elegy on the fate of wilderness in an industrial, land-hungry age. A Whale Ashore—Klahoquat is as ambitious a painting as Catlin ever attempted—half moody seascape, half grim morality tale. Set against a troubled sunset over the Pacific, the stranded whale is not the only creature in the picture that is seeing its last day. The Indians swarming around the carcass, in canoes and on foot, are observed from such a distance that one can tell little about them except that they are members of the same species. They might just as well be a colony of prairie dogs. The swirling pattern made by the crowd on the beach has the organic coherence of a shoal of minnows or a flock of gulls. In the middle distance a trim schooner rides at anchor. A boat has just put off from it. On the far horizon, to the right of the schooner, is a flattened contrail from a steamship going south. Numerous as the Indians may appear, it's the smoke in the distance that signals the inevitable outcome of this story. Historically speaking, we are just seconds away from the arrival of the logging crew, the pulp mill, the cannery, and all the rest of the machinery that will change forever the life of the unsuspecting people on the beach.

Since 1830 Catlin had been chasing Indians westward across the plains, trying to capture them on canvas before they were swamped by the tide of white conquest and settlement. By 1855 great tracts of the land that he had known as wilderness had been claimed for civilization by the barbed-wire fence. That Catlin could see the Indians as doomed even here, in the last outpost of the truly wild, reveals the depth of the visionary pessimism he had acquired on his travels. And he was right, of course. Ten years before he stood above the beach at Clayoquot, the Hudson Bay Company had made Victoria its western headquarters; three years before, the Seattle city fathers had staked claim to their settlement on Elliott Bay. Catlin's nearing steamship was as unstoppable as the setting sun.

he Indians in A Whale Ashore are squarely seen as part of the Pacific Northwest's nature, not its culture. It's no accident that one of the best collections of Native American art from the Northwest coast is housed not in the National Gallery but in the American Museum of Natural History, where the Salish, Haida, and Kwakiutl tribes take their place alongside stuffed elk and bison. In the basic grammar of nineteenth-century landscape painting, no stretch of Northwest water is complete without its canoeful of Indians—a native aquatic species whose presence gives the stamp of regional authenticity to a canvas. As the same water filled in real life with square-rigged lumber ships and steam tugs, its painted counterpart became an exclusionary zone in which white vessels were banned and only cedar canoes allowed.

In 1863, on his second swing through the West in search of material for his enormous pictures of the American Sublime, Albert Bierstadt planned to visit Puget Sound. However, his companion, the journalist Fitz Hugh Ludlow, fell ill in Oregon, and the two men sailed instead from Portland to San Francisco, en route to New York. The unvisited territory evidently loomed large in Bierstadt's imagination, and in 1870 he produced a curious painting titled Puget Sound, on the Pacific Coast, in which he depicted a landscape of artistic myth and rumor, a Pacific Northwest de l'esprit.

By Bierstadt's usual seven-by-twelve-foot standards, the canvas is quite a modest one, but every last inch is packed to the bursting point with the stock ingredients of the Sublime, all lusciously painted in the artist's best theatrical style. Here are rocks, precipices, withered trees, the darkness of a howling storm, a shaft of golden sunshine of the kind that might herald the Second Coming, a thunderous cascade descending a mountain face, a turbulent and angry sea, and Indians, hauling their canoes to safety out of the exploding surf. The picture turns Puget Sound into a brand name for the dreadfully picturesque.

More effectively than the Oregon paintings that Bierstadt drew from the life, Puget Sound, on the Pacific Coast formulates the terms on which the Pacific Northwest made its appeal to the aesthetic tourist. The region was soon dotted with established vantage points offering painterly views of the major landmarks: Mount Hood seen from the northwest bank of Lost Lake, Mount Adams seen from the Oregon side of the Columbia River, Mount Rainier seen from across Commencement Bay, on Puget Sound. It was a quickly established convention that Northwest water—river, lake, or branch of the sea—was sufficiently still to hold a faithful reflection of a mountain for hours at a time. This despite Bierstadt's suggestion that Puget Sound waves break on the shore like those of the Mediterranean in a full gale.

Sanford Gifford, a Luminist painter and a close friend of Bierstadt's, was another early visitor. In 1874 he pitched his easel on what I take to be the beach on the southeastern tip of Vashon Island and painted Mount Rainier mirrored in the lakelike water of Commencement Bay. The snowcapped summit, rose-tinted in the light of a late-summer afternoon, rises above a layer of hazy cloud like an apparition, or (in Gifford's own terms) a manifestation of the divine. The water is made radiant by the diffused brilliance of the mountain's reflection. On the scored-glass surface of the bay float two Salish canoes. On the far shore the most prominent trees are as green and, more surprisingly, deciduous as any in Gifford's English and Hudson River landscapes. It's a picture of an undisturbed American Arcadia, in which Indians—with their pathless woods, their peaceful water, and their inspiring alp—are seen to be living apparently beyond the reach of time.

It's Gifford's determined erasures that catch the eye. Gone (from the patch of land immediately above the canoe in the foreground) is the young town of Tacoma, with its new lumber mill, new docks, and fleet of moored cargo ships. Gifford's lovely Arcadia, so seemingly present, belongs to an imagined past, and the painting is suffused with nostalgia for a period that never really was, when bushy elms grew out over the water, and Indians were the nymphs and shepherds of European pastoral tradition.

Fifteen years after Gifford painted Mount Rainier, Bierstadt at last reached Puget Sound, having completed a painting tour of southeastern Alaska. Camped out on what appears to be the same spot that Gifford had used for his view of the mountain, Bierstadt set to work. By 1889 Tacoma had grown to a smoke-and-steam-wreathed city of 30,000 people. Bierstadt obliterated it from his vision. To accentuate the enchanted solitude of the scene, he painted just one Indian canoe in place of Gifford's two.

It should not be thought that Bierstadt took no interest in the great industrial developments of his time. He was acutely sensitive to them. His major patrons were financial, timber, mineral, and railroad magnates for whom Bierstadt's pictures (like those of Thomas Moran) were grandiose souvenirs of the West as it had been before their own work crews landscaped it to the industrialists' design. When Bierstadt finished his Rainier painting, in his New York studio, he sent a hopeful letter to James J. Hill. Mount Tacoma (the alternative name for Rainier) was, he wrote, "one of the grandest of mountains," and it was happily situated "on the line of your road." The railroad baron didn't bite.

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Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; March 2001; Battleground of the Eye - 01.03; Volume 287, No. 3; page 40-52.