The Buffalo Bill Center of the West and Gilcrease Museum have partnered to present a groundbreaking exhibition titled Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West. Bierstadt (1830–1902) is best known as America’s premier western landscape artist. He was also a renowned history painter, a rarely discussed element of his legacy. This major exhibition will address Bierstadt in context of his treatment not just of majestic mountains and lakes but more prominently of bison and American Indians, whom he approached as key subjects for his art.
Bierstadt’s history paintings conveyed moral messages as he strove to preserve the dignity of Native people like the Sioux and Shoshone, reveal the tragic slaughter of the American bison, and inspire empathy for the remnant herds of buffalo in Yellowstone National Park as the species neared extinction. The painter’s masterwork, The Last of the Buffalo (ca. 1888), stands as a powerful example of the national and international impact of Bierstadt’s art for Euro-American and Native people alike in the late nineteenth century. This and other selected works demonstrate the ways in which Bierstadt engaged with environmental and aesthetic issues of his time, and employed the subjects of Plains Indians and bison as iconic symbols of western America’s changing face.
The exhibition and companion publication will stand as unprecedented examinations of one of the nation’s most significant artists. This project will attract the attention of audiences familiar with Bierstadt’s complex legacy and those interested in the histories of conservation and wildlife management in America, our national parks, and the Indigenous peoples of the American West. Looking beyond the grand manner landscapes for which he is famous, this exhibition is inspired by Bierstadt’s paintings of American Indians and bison, and thus promotes fresh, new perspectives on a beloved American artist.
Whether or not you go, the exhibition catalog Albert Bierstadt: Witness to a Changing West takes a major step in reappraising Bierstadt’s contributions by reexamining the artist through a new lens. It shows how Bierstadt conveyed moral messages through his paintings, often to preserve the dignity of Native peoples and call attention to the tragic slaughter of the American bison. More broadly, the book reconsiders the artist’s engagement with contemporary political and social debates surrounding wildlife conservation in America, the creation and perpetuation of national parks, and the prospects for the West’s indigenous peoples. Bierstadt’s final history paintings, including his dual masterworks titled The Last of the Buffalo—a special focus of this volume—stand out as elegiac odes to an earlier era, giving voice to concerns about the intertwined fates of Native peoples and endangered wildlife, especially bison. Along with its rich sampling of Bierstadt’s diverse artwork, the book features informative essays by noted curators, scholars of art history, and historians of the American West.
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