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INDIAN ENCAMPMENT at SUNSET a painting by Albert Bierstadt | The Rest of the Story

by James H. Nottage, Eiteljorg vice president and chief curatorial officer | Sep 29, 2014

  

           Albert Bierstadt, Indian Encampment at Sunset, oil on canvas, ca. 1875, gift courtesy of Harrison Eiteljorg. 

            It is a small painting, just 14 inches by 20 inches wide. It rests in a gilded gold frame, possibly the original from the time of the painting’s creation. In the painting, orange-cast clouds reflect the rapidly receding yellow sunlight on the distant horizon while in the foreground trees and Indian teepees are embraced by growing night-time darkness. By the early 1870s, artist Albert Bierstadt was well-known for the moods conveyed in his Western landscape paintings.  He created grand canvases from his travels to Yosemite and other recognizable areas of the great West, but they were not precise documents. They were inspirational and often took liberties with scenes the artist viewed in person. Trees, rock formations, and bodies of water were subject to his rearrangement for the sake of aesthetics.

             Certainly it was the beauty of Indian Encampment at Sunset, along with the importance of the artist, that drew Harrison Eiteljorg to collect this work in the late 1970s. The inside story is that the hundred year history of the painting was fairly well documented at that time although there was a critical error in the record. Eiteljorg obtained the painting from a gallery in Maryland. According to the gallery, a woman named Marian Townsley sold the painting in 1976, but had inherited it from her mother, Mrs. M. Howland Townsley in 1925. In turn she acquired it from her mother, Florence Little King Howland in 1910. She acquired it, as the story goes, from her “first husband” after his death in 1901. The man who died in 1901 was actually her son, the famed American explorer and geologist, Clarence King. 

   

            Clarence King was the first director of the U. S. Geological Survey and among his many accomplishments was best known for exploring the Sierra Nevadas. For six years beginning in 1867 he led expeditions to survey the 40th U. S. Parallel. He also exposed a famous hoax that claimed the discovery of diamonds in Colorado, and published notable geology texts. At first, King did not trust the paintings of Albert Bierstadt, because of how the artist depicted geological features.  By 1872, however, the two were exploring the Sierras together and King reported in August that Bierstadt would “give me liberty to copy any or all of his studies” for his report. Bierstadt’s field work that summer also became the basis of a number of important large paintings. 

   

            It is possible that the Bierstadt sunset painting was acquired by Clarence King at this time. That the artist was inspired by scenes viewed alongside King is clear from his paintings. King was equally inspired, writing that “I found it extremest pleasure to lie there alone on the dizzy brink, . . . watching that slow grand growth of afternoon shadows. Sunset found me there, still disinclined to stir, and repaid my laziness by a glorious spectacle of color. At this hour there is no more splendid contrast of light and shade.” (Clarence King, Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada, Boston, 1872).

          Oh, and the deeper part of the story? It seems that the great explorer, Clarence King, led a double life for the last 13 years of his life. He posed as an African American railway porter named James Todd - having a common-law wife with whom he had five children. Read about the fascinating story of King and his family in Martha A. Sandweiss's masterful book, Passing Strange: A Gilded Age Tale of Love and Deception Across the Color Line. New York: Penguin Press, 2009. Oh, and take a look at Indian Encampment at Sunset in the Eiteljorg's Gund Gallery of Western Art.

              

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