Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
The Oregon Trail
Oil on canvas, 1869
Albert Bierstadt was a painter and photographer who accompanied a party surveying a new waggon route. They were also charged with negotiating with the Indian Americans who would be affected by the new route.
This picture shows several interesting points - in the background you can see the native American in their natural setting, underneath a radiant (or luminous) sun and next to the Rocky mountains. The mountains are exaggerated to look reminiscent of the Alps in Europe, helping to sell the idea of travelling west because its bountiful but yet familiar too. However, they are also shear and unforgiving, there is a sense of danger and foreboding.
One idea for the meaning behind this painting is that it was to make the landscape look magical and wondrous in order to sell the settlers on the idea of western expansion, so you can see there are many edible animals running around and they are all fat and healthy. No one is having to run after or hunt these animals either, they are just walking amongst the people, so either they are herded with the train or they are impossibly tame, both of which portray the area as full of food and bounty. The trail is smooth and easy like a road designed just for the waggon train.
However the native American settlement is cast is an angry orange glow to make it seem like a constant possible threat on the horizon (on the other side of the river) The Luminism of the work is its main feature and the dusk (or dawn) sky show either journey beginning (the start of a new life, a new day full of possibilities) or the arrival at their destination (the promised land, the end of the day where one can finally set up home and lay down his head). An alternative view is that the camp should have been set up by sundown but because of the threat of the native Americans they have to keep pushing on.
There are many other small details within this picture that someone familiar to the work of Bierstadt or the Realism movement would be able to pick up on - such as the bones near the bottom of the picture and a broken stove which show the failure of those came before.
Finally, this image is the stereotype of the emigrating frontiersman, a stereotype that been around for centuries, but appears to be based in fact looking at this painting (since the artist was there.) However, there is some dispute over whether Bierstadt was even in America when he painted this work but since the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, thus making the waggon train a thing of the past, it has been said that he painted this out of nostalgia rather than fact.