By Dan Szczesny
Imagine browsing an art gallery in Boston in 1870, when you turn a corner and come upon a monumental canvas, ten feet wide, bordered by an enormous, bold frame. And yet, for all its grandeur, the painting called The Emerald Pool, of a place in the White Mountains just north of you, is intimate and concealed. Despite the towering bulk of the imposing mountain behind the water fall depicted in the painting, the pool itself is gentle. Deer seem to walk unafraid right out of the woods. Albert Bierstadt’s painting of a place that in your head seemed distant and dangerous, now suddenly becomes possible. Maybe you can get out of the claustrophobic city, make it up there, take a train or a coach. Maybe you can even get to stand right there, next to that pool. Maybe.
So you tell some friends and bring them to see the painting for themselves. And there are others. The painting is exhibited in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. It even wins a medal in Vienna.
Like the viral spread of a favorite Instagram picture or Facebook meme in our digital world, or like the easy share of Pinterest, 19th century artists like Bierstadt were at the vanguard of, and eager participants in, capturing the wild, unwieldy and often deadly wilderness of the White Mountains in sketches and painting and offering their visions up to eager adventurers around the world. These early artists captured the imagination of a country looking to explore and expand – and soon, the tourists began to come.
Bierstadt’s spectacular painting, along with early books, drawings and even photography of Mount Washington and the surrounding area are currently on view at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H. The exhibition, entitled Mount Washington: The Crown of New England, is an exhaustive and detailed history of the visual culture that fired the imaginations of tourists from around the world to visit New Hampshire. The exhibition runs through Jan. 16, 2017.
And much like our often far-from-transparent digital footprints, what’s so extraordinary about much of the work on view is how beautifully unrealistic the images actually are. In Bierstadt’s famous painting for example, Mount Washington bolts up from the earth in the background of the pool, giving the scene an epic atmosphere. In reality, no mountain can be seen from the real Emerald Pool. In one of the earliest illustrations of Mount Washington, Abel Bowen’s 1823 Comparative View of the Heights of Mountains in & c in N. Hampshire, the peaks soar to massive points, like impossible triangles.
The core of the exhibition is the work of an English-born painter from New York, Thomas Cole, one of the first non-regional artists to begin producing images of Mount Washington. His iconic 1827 painting, View in the White Mountains was the first truly viral painting. It was the image that announced both the spectacular geography of northern New Hampshire and also ushered in a new American style of landscape painting which soon developed a sense of pride and nationalism for the new country. It wasn’t enough that Mount Washington existed, but rather in his bold representation of the rugged mountain, towering and white, looming over the simple, delicate countryside with tiny farmers in the foreground, Cole announced that the mountain was ours as well.
The Currier’s exhibition drives home this notion of national pride again and again as the visitor is witness to the eventual explorations of the summit, to trails and summit buildings, to the Carriage (later, Auto) Road and the Cog Railway. One of my favorite paintings in the exhibition is Edward Hill’s 1884 Cog Railway which shows two steaming locomotives near Jacob’s Ladder, the steepest part of the rails, ascending at a nearly impossible angle – smoke belching, mist pouring over the ridge, and a sharp, menacing landscape of rocks to navigate.
The exhibition, as vast as it is, offers just a taste of the massive amount of art, writing and photography that was produced during the early years of the mountain’s exploration, but paints a clear picture of how Mount Washington came to represent the hopes and ambitions of a young country looking for identity. And much like our own search for connection and self in today’s world of digital identity, it’s easy to see why curiosity about the mountain spread just as quickly, too.
Dan Szczesny is an author and journalist living in New Hampshire, and is the Associate Publisher at Hippo Press. He’s written several travel memoirs including on the White Mountains, Nepal and Alaska. He’s currently working on “The White Mountain,” a compendium of the cultural and social history of Mount Washington. For more information on the book and to learn how you can sponsor the project or contribute, watch the video and read about the book here: The White Mountain Book