The Last of the Buffalo
Oil on canvas
54 x 72 x 1.5 in.
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
In 1888, toward the end of his career, Albert Bierstadt painted one of his best-known canvases, The Last of the Buffalo, a typically sentimental potboiler with a complex web of subtexts. Bierstadt—America’s first art star—had made his name and fortune with epically scaled romantic landscapes that were inseparable from the western expansionism promoted by the concept of Manifest Destiny. But by the late 1880s his work was so out of fashion that this final masterpiece was unanimously rejected for inclusion in the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
A work that was perhaps a belated mea culpa became an unintended allegorical self-portrait. A full century later, Edmonton-born Los Angeles painter Margaret Nielsen, celebrated for her figurative paintings of dreamlike and often disturbing visions, revised Bierstadt’s archetypal scene with the insertion of a typically loaded symbolic figure: a blonde white angel, presumably Christian, hovering in midair before the Native American hunter like a miraculous manifestation. Her eyes are closed in inner contemplation, radiating a corona of streaking light that delivers—what? Redemption? For whom? Nielsen based the angel on the familiar Victorian postcard image of a guardian angel watching over a pair of oblivious toddlers on a rickety footbridge.
Bierstadt was an appropriate choice for Nielsen’s appropriation. Her work has a fiercely romantic streak, and her use of intense color and dramatic chiaroscuro are not out of line with the techniques of the original “painter of light.” But Bierstadt’s arguably self-reflective last act is Nielsen’s starting point, contentwise. “The original was painted at a time when there were only about six hundred remaining buffalo in the country,” the artist observes. “For me it was about the creation of a mythology of the West and how it was/is tied to real estate promotion—not to mention that the reason we wiped out the buffalo was in order to wipe out the Native Americans. The angel is somehow about collective loss and grief and the fantasy that there could be an archetypal protectress (of a people—of an ecology—of everybody I guess)— where was she when we needed her?”
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Western United States
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