Bierstadt’s early western paintings placed equal emphasis on the extraordinary landscapes and the Native peoples of the West.
The artist’s sketches from his journey through the West in 1859 reveal his admiration for the Native cultures he encountered. He made color studies of Sioux and Shoshone communities peacefully interacting with American troops and Oregon Trail pioneers. Following his early travels, Bierstadt painted few scenes of wagons pressing westward, instead choosing to depict Sioux cultures on the Great Plains and Shoshone villages in the mountains.
Not all, but many influential critics of the day were unimpressed. When reviewing Bierstadt’s painting The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, detractors lampooned his combination of a grand landscape with a Native American village. In the face of mounting criticism, Bierstadt altered his focus and began painting pure landscapes in which he replaced human presence with bison and other animals, rendering wildlife as a symbol of a changing West.