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The vista Bierstadt painted here is one of terrifying isolation - a mountain stream or lake bordered on one side by cliffs with a steep rise of several hundred feet and on the other by traversable
land stopped to the rear by the wall of a giant cloud-covered mountain range. Perhaps a storm has just passed. But so cleverly has Bierstadt enclosed the water in a typical space-box format, reduced
the cliffs on the left to the height of the balancing trees on the other side of the water, given the mountains a clean and airy rather than a menacing aspect, and provided us with a relatively
small and safe area of land to walk on in the lower right, that we only look at the visually sublime view rather than feel the intense physical solitude. The wilderness is not frightening but rather
seems benign, pure, and innocent. Bierstadt achieves this effect in part by hiding the vast amount of space between the viewer and the most distant waterfall. The foreground ends with the trees that
jut out into the water from either bank; then the background starts abruptly.
A long and deep middle distance is simply eliminated; the background, despite the enormous vista, becomes the middle ground. Spatial recession appears to stop at the rear of the foreground, and the mountainous distance appears as a harmless drop cloth. With such devices Bierstadt made the western mountains domestic in scale, thus easy to live with in one's sitting room. He might also have wanted to paint a sublime view almost as if it were a harmonious and picturesque scene to impress his European audiences. Possibly, In the Mountains was painted during his two-year stay abroad.
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