JAIC 1999, Volume 38, Number 1, Article 6 (pp. 55 to 67)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1999, Volume 38, Number 1, Article 6 (pp. 55 to 67)

BIERSTADT AND OTHER 19TH-CENTURY AMERICAN PAINTERS IN CONTEXT

LANCE MAYER, & GAY MYERS



2 PRESENTATION

The lighting and hanging of paintings are inextricably connected. For instance, in a traditional gallery with skylights in the ceiling, the amount of light falling on a painting might vary greatly from one section of wall to another or change according to the weather and the time of day. Artificial lighting, which developed in the 19th century, is more controllable but the color of the light can also make a painting appear different from the way it looks in daylight. The angle at which light strikes a painting is also important. A painting hung too high may reflect light from skylights or ceiling-mounted artificial lights toward the viewer, making it difficult to see the image. Poor lighting and direct reflections would have been especially noticeable on the large, dark, varnished paintings from the middle of the 19th century.


2.1 LIGHTING

The American critic and collector Jarves ([1864] 1960, 268) wrote, “Until recently…pictures were generally hung without regard even to light, so as to conform to the symmetry of the room.” Some artists working in the second half of the 19th century realized that their paintings looked different in different kinds of light. Sanford Gifford (1823–80) described in a letter to John Ferguson Weir that his painting of the Parthenon looked fine in good light but looked poor in dull light, so he took a great risk and repainted the entire sky, against Church's advice. Gifford (1880, 174) wrote that “now it looks better in a fine light, and will not suffer so much in a bad one.” Other artists tried to disregard the limitations of lighting. It was said of the paintings of William Page (who shared a studio with Bierstadt in 1870): “Pictures painted in so low a key, when hung upon the walls of our badly-lighted houses, can scarcely be seen; but [Page] has always held that they should not be falsely painted because houses are badly lighted” (Sheldon 1881, 225). Few artists reacted as strongly to bad lighting as an exhibitor at the National Academy of Design in 1860: “Last year Elliot one day took out his knife and cut one of his pictures out of its frame on the wall, being justly indignant at its having been stuck up in bad light, several feet above the line of true vision” (Cosmopolitan Art Journal 1861, 36).

The lighting of Bierstadt's large western scenes presented some special problems. In 1860, when his Base of the Rocky Mountains, Laramie Peak (1860, unlocated) was shown at the Tenth Street Studio Building, a reviewer observed that the lighting was poor (New York Tribune, March 27, 1860, quoted in Anderson and Ferber 1990). In 1864, when The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863, Metropolitan Museum of Art) was first shown, a critic described his experience of looking at the painting “under all circumstances of external light, in dark and bright weather, in good and bad positions” (quoted in Hendricks 1974, 147). By the latter part of the 1860s, when he exhibited The Domes of the Yosemite (1867, St. Johnsbury Atheneum), Bierstadt seems to have left less to the whims of weather or chance. The lighting was described as very carefully controlled, and the point of view of the spectators was controlled as well by the construction of raised galleries (New York Post, May 7, 1867, quoted in Anderson and Ferber 1990). Bierstadt's large pictures apparently generated a great deal of thought and comments about proper viewing distance and height, which may have helped to stimulate the re-evaluation of hanging practices that occurred a little later in the 19th century.

Better control of lighting was possible because by the third quarter of the 19th century gas illumination was practical and widespread; period photographs of Bierstadt's studio at his home, Malkasten, show gas fixtures, and it is known that Bierstadt sometimes painted at night by gaslight. The exhibition space at the Tenth Street Studio Building also had what was described as brilliant gaslight (Weiss 1987). It was reported in 1864 that the paintings on exhibit at the Metropolitan Fair for the U.S. Sanitary Commision were illuminated by 490 gas jets (Hendricks 1974). Gaslight made evening exhibitions possible and, as Flexner (1970) has pointed out, allowed the new class of businessmen, who were becoming the new patrons of art, to come with their families to view paintings after a day of work.

The difference between daylight and gaslight was noticed at the time; in one case a viewer thought that Bierstadt's painting Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie (1866, Brooklyn Museum) looked better by gaslight but was told by the artist that the painting looked better by daylight (Anderson and Ferber 1990).


2.2 HANGING PRACTICE

When Bierstadt began exhibiting his works, paintings were hung close together, often right up to the ceiling. This taste favored the overall decorative effect of a room at the expense of the individual work of art, and it allowed exhibitions to present more paintings for viewing and potential sale. But critics and artists were begining to rebel against galleries and private owners hanging pictures so high that, as Philip Hamerton (1876, 134–35) wrote, “note a creature except the flies can even hope to behold them.” Hamerton, a British writer whose books were published and widely distributed in America, made the poor hanging of paintings a béte noire. He wrote: “If a lad were to study Latin, and his tutor were to say to him, 'You shall not hold your book where you can read it, but it shall be placed at such a distance from you as to be illegible,' what would you think of that tutor? Would you not say that he was crazy? Well, but picture-hangers constantly do that” (Hamerton 1876, 142). Or again: “When you go to a painter's studio and ask him to show you a picture, he does not run upstairs with it and hang it out at the window of the third storey and tell you to go out into the street and look up at it. No; he puts it on an easel, level with your eye, wheels the easel into the best light; and you really see the work. Now in a rationally contrived gallery you ought to be able to see every picture just as easily and comfortably as that” (Hamerton 1876, 243).

The 19th-century practice of hanging paintings with their tops leaning out away from the wall was made necessary in part because paintings were hung so high. This technique also helped to prevent glare by changing the angle at which light from above reflected off the surface of a painting. Today, most museums do not follow this practice, and they often have problems lighting tall, dark paintings without glare at the top. But the appearance of a painting could suffer if it were tilted so far forward that very little light fell on it. Thomas Cole once had to explain to his patron Daniel Wadsworth that some of the paintings that Wadsworth had lent to an exhibition at the National Academy of Design looked bad for this reason; the problem had to be corrected part way through the exhibition (McNulty 1983).

The spacing of paintings remained surprisingly tight, even in some of the new “reformed” schemes for hanging pictures. Clement and Hutton (1885, xiv) said of the new Grosvenor Gallery, which opened in 1877, “The pictures are not placed closely together, as is of necessity the rule in ordinary galleries, but a space of at least one foot is allowed on every side of each work.”


2.3 FRAMING

Picture frames were an important part of the presentation of paintings; Bierstadt's paintings were sometimes framed in gold-leafed frames and sometimes in dark-stained wood frames, as is shown in photographs of The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak at the 1864 Sanitary Commission Fair in New York. A dark wood frame may have made Bierstadt's landscapes appear even brighter by comparison and may have enhanced the illusionistic “window” effect, especially when the paintings were dramatically lit. But Hamerton (1876, 370), writing in 1871, specifically disliked the massive dark wood frames in which Bierstadt's paintings were shown when they were exhibited in England: “As a cornice for some room, richly furnished in carved wood, they would have been very noble and appropriate; as picture-frames, they had the radical vice of not showing the picture to advantage…. Gold adds to the splendour of a work of art more than any other surrounding.”

The contrast between a wood frame and the splendor of a gold frame is clearer when one sees a 19th-century gilt frame that has been protected from grime in a glazed shadow-box since it was made. Several such pristine examples of gilt frames from Bierstadt's period can be found at the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Estate, Norfolk, Connecticut. Twentieth-century eyes have become so accustomed to worn, dirty, and deliberately patinated frames that gilt frames as 19th-century artists saw them might look gaudy to us now. But seeing the brilliant reflections from a perfectly preserved frame makes it possible to understand Thomas Cole's (1801–48) comment that the frame he had selected for a painting would actually help to light it (McNulty 1983). It also explains Thomas Sully's remark that Washington Allston (1779–1843) preferred the look of an old frame to the “glaring glitter” of a new one (Sully [1873] 1965, 31). Early photographs show something of the brilliant effect that a wall hung with paintings in new, shiny gold frames would have made (fig. 1).

Fig. 1. Stereograph of a gallery of paintings, American, third quarter of the 19th century. Courtesy of William Schaefer Photographs and Fine Art, Chester, Connecticut

A practice that conservators have occasionally noticed, and that can be documented in written sources as well, is some artists' preference for finishing a painting after putting it into a frame (Burnet 1850; Hamerton 1876). We do not know that Bierstadt did this, but many artists are said to have kept frames in their studios in order to complete their paintings. M. F. H. De Haas, for instance, was said to have put each picture into a frame when it was about half-done (Sheldon 1881).


Copyright © 1999 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works