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Discovering Nature, Then and Now in Nature’s Nation

Fallen Bierstadt by Hegarty (left); Bridal Veil Falls-Yosemite by Bierstadt (right)

In Nature’s Nation: American Art and Environment, historic and contemporary artworks are often paired to reflect varying viewpoints on nature and humankind’s effects on it, then and now. Here are three examples of these pairings:


Subject to Interpretation: Nature as Romance and Reality

Albert Bierstadt, American, 1830-1902. Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite, ca. 1871-73. Oil on canvas. 91.8 × 67 cm (36 1/8 × 26 3/8 in.). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Purchased with funds from the North Carolina State Art Society (Robert F. Phifer Bequest) and various donors, by exchange.

Valerie Hegarty, American, born 1967, Fallen Bierstadt,
2007. Foamcore, paint, paper, glue, gel medium, canvas,
wire, wood. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Campari, USA 2008.
9a-b. © Valerie Hegarty. Photo: Brooklyn Museum



















Albert Bierstadt was known for his landscape paintings capturing pristine vistas of the American West and became closely associated with images of Yosemite National Park—here he emphasized the grandeur of Bridal Veil Falls. In Valerie Hegarty’s version, Bierstadt’s picture seems to be melting and degrading as it literally falls off the wall. Fallen Bierstadt questions the way traditional landscape painting idealizes nature as an untouched wilderness retreat that ignores the complexity and history of a place. Hegarty urges us to imagine nature differently—not as a romantic escape from the world, but as something real, fragile, and subject to interpretation.


The Reality of Extinction: The Carolina Parakeet

John James Audubon, American, 1785–1851 “Carolina Parakeet,” in The Birds of America, plate 26, 1827–38. Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Firestone Library, Princeton University, Oversize EX 8880.134.11e.

Walton Ford, Dying Words, 2005
Etching and aquatint in colours with drypoint, scraper and burnisher, on white Rives paper. Courtesy of the Artist and Kasmin.



















Walton Ford’s depiction of Carolina parrots recalls John James Audubon’s treatment of the same species. Audubon attempted to capture bird behavior in nature, dynamically congregating among the cocklebur bushes. In Ford’s version, the parrots gather around one bird who is mortally wounded and conveying his dying words. Ford’s depiction is humorous, but also poignant in its evocation of death. The Carolina parrots were the only native parrot species in the US, but by the early 1900s, the vibrant birds were extinct.


Urban Life: Visualizing Industrialization

George Bellows, American, 1882-1925. Cliff Dwellers, 1913. Oil on canvas. 40 3/16 x 42 1/16 in. (102.0763 x 106.8388 cm). Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles County Fund (16.4).

Aaron Douglas (American, 1899-1979). Song of the Towers, 1966. Oil and tempera on canvas. framed 34 x 30 in. (86.36 x 76.2 cm.). Milwaukee Art Museum, Lent by State of Wisconsin, Executive Residence, Madison, WI. L1.2006.















Although these two artworks were created closer together in time, they represent different interpretations of a changing urban landscape. In the early twentieth century, there was growing concern about urban environmental reform, especially in the poor areas of New York City. Despite obvious overcrowding in his painting of a lower Manhattan immigrant neighborhood, George Bellows celebrated the vitality of the working class in Cliff Dwellers. The circles of light radiating from the saxophone player in Aaron Douglas’s Song of the Towers connotes artistic power and freedom, yet troubling signs appear at the bottom of the painting. Pollution pours from the smokestacks and green fumes waft throughout the picture, while a menacing hand clutches at the figure at right. Douglas tells us that although the migration north allowed some African Americans to advance, many injustices remained, including racial discrimination and high levels of pollution in minority neighborhoods.


This post was written by Mindy Besaw, curator of American art at Crystal Bridges.


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