Of Harmony and Regret

Albert Bierstadt captured an Emersonian scene of the Hetch Hetchy Canyon, a scene we can no longer see.


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The elk are looking right at us. There are three of them down there at the bottom left-hand side of the painting (and the hazy forms of more elk further off, in the distance of the meadow). A stream curves around a copse of trees to the left of the elk. The sheer cliff of a mountain rises above. The sun is glowing in its setting just beyond the trees. It is a moment of intense beauty at Hetch Hetchy Canyon.

The painting “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” was created by Albert Bierstadt in 1875. Bierstadt was once the most famous painter in America. Along with Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church, he’s a central figure in the Hudson River School of painting. These painters favored landscapes. They captured American nature in its grandiosity. Bierstadt’s “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” records a scene in a remote area near Yosemite in California.

The painting now lives in Massachusetts, at the Mount Holyoke College Art Museum. It was also recently on display as the centerpiece of an exhibit called “Albert Bierstadt and the Legacy of Concern.” Bierstadt’s painting was the first painting ever purchased by the museum, inaugurating its collection. On the face of it, the painting is a strange choice to inaugurate the collection of a museum in Massachusetts. What does a remote canyon way out west have to do with Massachusetts?

The answer is Emerson. In 1875, Ralph Waldo Emerson was still alive. He was living out his final years in Concord, Massachusetts. Emerson had spent his whole life sending the imaginations of American artists out into nature. He’d done it with his famous essay, Nature, written in 1836, and furthered his cause with the stream of essays and lectures that flowed from his pen in the years following. In Nature, Emerson explained that Americans have a special relationship with nature and, thus, a special responsibility to connect with nature’s beauty as it can be found in the American landscape. Painters like Albert Bierstadt took up this task with gusto. They got out there into the wild and they put nature on the canvas just as they thought Emerson had directed them to. And that’s why the folks at Mount Holyoke College started their museum with Albert Bierstadt’s painting. “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” is an example of the first uniquely American movement in painting as it was inspired by the thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson.

In 1876, Bierstadt wrote a note to Mount Holyoke College explaining a few aspects of his painting. He said, for instance, that he chose late autumn as the season for the painting because of the “golden haze.” Bierstadt also discussed the elk. He noted that elk are “unfortunately becoming rarer every year,” and that, “in early times the deer were very numerous.” Is nature, in Bierstadt’s “Hetch Hetchy Canyon,” under threat? The current director of the Mount Holyoke College Museum, John Stomberg, thinks so. That’s why he chose to call the most recent exhibit “Albert Bierstadt and the Legacy of Concern.” Stomberg notes that in Bierstadt’s painting the “elk have stopped what they are doing and look up at us (the artist/viewers). This little gesture changes the picture dramatically. Nature, represented here by the elk, is not in a pristine, undisturbed state. Rather, nature contends already with the human intrusion, and does so warily.”

That’s an interesting interpretation of “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” in that it highlights how deeply un-Emersonian the American conception of nature has become in the century and a quarter since Bierstadt made his painting. Emerson did not think of nature as fragile and he did not think of nature as something human beings could threaten even if they wanted to. Emerson thought that human beings and nature were in constant and necessary collaboration. Here, for example, is Emerson: “Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man.” For Emerson, it was a given that nature is there for man and that man is there for nature. Because nature cannot exist without man, Emerson never even thinks to consider the idea that nature could exist in a “pristine, undisturbed state.” That there could be such thing as a “human intrusion” into nature is similarly foreign to Emerson’s mind. Emerson writes that: “Nature is so pervaded with human life, that there is something of humanity in all, and in every particular.”

Stomberg is right that the elk represent nature in Bierstadt’s painting. But the elk, and thus nature itself, are not wary of man. In fact, the reason that the elk look out at the artist/viewer in Bierstadt’s painting is that, in fine Emersonian fashion, the elk recognize the human presence as part of their own purpose. Nature shines forth in “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” especially in order to illuminate man. Remember how important it was to Bierstadt to capture the “golden haze” of autumn. Emerson called light “the first of painters.” He thought that light itself had the effect of organizing the disparate objects of nature into an ordered landscape that is “round and symmetrical.” You can see that roundness and symmetry in “Hetch Hetchy Canyon.” The statuesque cliffs rising up in the left background of the painting are folded over toward the trees that shoot out of the right foreground. The hazy light from the sun behind the trees pulls the rocks and the foliage toward the center of the painting with a centripetal force. We, the viewers, are meant to gaze upon the scene in “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” in Emersonian reverie. Emerson writes, “From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.”

Dilating and conspiring with the morning wind — it’s a wonderful image. Albert Bierstadt’s painting revels in our capacity, as human beings, to dilate and conspire in harmony with nature.

You will encounter difficulties, however, if you’d like to dilate and conspire with Hetch Hetchy Canyon today as Albert Bierstadt did in 1875. That’s because the valley that Bierstadt painted no longer exists. The O’Shaughnessy Dam was built there in 1923. The massive reservoir and the dam provide water and electricity for the San Francisco Bay area. Because of the dam, the valley that Bierstadt captured in his lovely painting has been an artificial lake for almost a hundred years. Environmentalists and nature lovers have been trying to get the dam removed for a long time, to no avail. Many millions of people live in the Bay Area. They need their water and power. Hetch Hetchy Canyon was a victim of that need. Nature, as Albert Bierstadt encountered it in the canyon, has been obliterated wholesale.

Armed with this knowledge, gazing at Bierstadt’s “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” can only be, today, a bittersweet affair. On second thought John Stomberg, the director of the Mount Holyoke College Museum, is thus correct when he says that the elk in the painting are looking at us warily. The elk were not looking at us warily in 1875. They were looking at us conspiratorially; they were inviting us in to the well-rounded, hazy, Emersonian space of nature in 1875. But that space is dead. We killed it. A dam was built in 1923 and one of the many consequences of the building of that dam is that Hetch Hetchy Canyon was flooded and destroyed. On that day, Albert Bierstadt’s painting was transformed as well. It isn’t the same painting it was in the late 19th century. It was a painting that gave us nature with which we dilate and conspire. It is now a painting that shows us nature as wary and fragile.

The painting has also transformed in its relationship to Emerson. In 1875, the painting confirmed Emerson. It was a visual expression of Emerson’s ideas, of the thoughts on nature he’d written for decades. Bierstadt’s painting, like so many of the paintings by artists of the Hudson River School, produced living testimony to the nature Emerson said was out there in the real world. Emerson said that nature was delightful and alive and that its very purpose was to communicate its higher ideals to us, who are meant to receive and respond. Emerson was certain that the delight we find in nature was essentially guaranteed, that it was the result of an unbreakable compact and harmony between nature and man.

With the obliteration of Hetch Hetchy Canyon the place, “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” the painting is now a cautionary tale in the limits of Emersonian metaphysics. The painting no longer seems to give us a true picture of nature, but nature as we once fantasized it should be.

Emerson wrote an essay in 1844 called “Tragedy.” He began the essay by noting that, “Melancholy cleaves to the English mind in both hemispheres as closely as to the strings of an Æolian harp,” and that, “no theory of life can have any right, which leaves out of account the values of vice, pain, disease, poverty, insecurity, disunion, fear, and death.” But these observations were more or less throat clearing on Emerson’s part. He didn’t believe that life is, in itself tragic. He didn’t believe that tragedy is a necessary component of nature or man or of the relations between the two. Emerson wrote, “Frankly then it is necessary to say that all sorrow dwells in a low region. It is superficial; for the most part fantastic, or in the appearance and not in things. Tragedy is in the eye of the observer, and not in the heart of the sufferer.”

Hetch Hetchy Canyon, the place and the painting, undermine this claim. The tragedy of Hetch Hetchy Canyon is not an apparent tragedy, not a tragedy that comes from a melancholic way of thinking, which can be cured by the proper dose of Emersonian optimism. The tragedy of Hetch Hetchy Canyon is a tragedy that is real, that inheres not just in the appearances, as Emerson would have it, but in things. When you look at “Hetch Hetchy Canyon” today, it is impossible to believe the Emersonian story. It is impossible to believe that nature imparts truths to man as Emerson thought it did. Instead, we look at the scene in the canyon with melancholy, knowing that it is the painting of a ghost. There is no harmony in ghosts. There is no harmony in the tragic, which always comes with the revelation of fissures and breaks in what we thought was solid and most reliable. Tragedy is the upending of our most deeply held assumptions, the assumptions that we didn’t even know we had until they were destroyed. If tragedy is wrapped up with nature, with what happens in the world despite our best intentions, then it is always going to come as a surprise; it is always going to catch us unaware.

The elk in Albert Bierstadt’s painting look at us because they are surprised. They didn’t see it coming. They didn’t know what to expect around the next bend in the canyon. This is to say that nature is sometimes surprising even to itself. One kind of creature startles another. Nature uses one of its hands to undo the work of the other, like when humans build a dam to flood a valley. At the heart of nature is a mysterious process that is not well-rounded and paintable as a truth self-evident to man. It is dark, tumultuous, and surprising. In the case of Hetch Hetchy Canyon, we find ourselves authors of a tragedy of which we are also the victims.

Bierstadt’s painting is, now, something it was never intended to be. It is transformed from a painting of harmony to a painting of regret. Emerson has no hold on it anymore. We’ve wrested it from his grasp. Emerson would have used the painting to beat tragedy out of the cosmic story. But over the last century and more we’ve beat it right back in again. By flooding the canyon we transformed the picture. • 19 June 2013