With humbling mountains, reflective water, and an open sky fit to display God, Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada, California, (1868) fills an entire exhibition all by itself. Housed in a permanent exhibit on the second floor of the eastern wing of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, this massive landscape of six feet tall by ten feet wide (excluding its strong, golden frame) seems to spill into the hallway leading up to it, uncontainable in its intimate alcove. This room, entitled in metallic lettering above the painting as the Billings and John Cay Gallery, is a comprised of three solid walls with an arched ceiling, framed by heavy velvet curtains. (Unfortunately, there is also a large vent right below the painting.) In the center of the room is a circular lounge in a matching velvet, which invites viewers to sit, stay a while, and become consumed by the fantastic oil painting. Importantly, this invitation to sit—to lower oneself—positions the viewer looking up at the painting, scripting a feeling of awe and reverence.
Among the Sierra Nevada, California, is a “Great Picture,” a painting meant to have its own solo exhibition and a spectacular public unveiling, with velvet curtains pulled back to reveal its hidden treasure. After waiting in line to view the original unveilings of the painting across Europe in 1868, viewers would have looked through opera glasses or small binoculars or even rolled up the programs for the event to make telescopes in order to isolate details of the painting or make the whole look more three-dimensional. Contemporary viewers—or perhaps “spectators” is a more fitting term—are given this information on one of the placards that label the painting, thereby bringing modern audiences into the scene of its original 1868 unveilings through the reference of the velvet curtains that flank the gallery. With these conventions for viewing the “Great Picture” in mind, spectators past and present not only scrutinize an artistic work (which was during its initial tour for sale) but also survey one another. Modifying Foucault’s articulations of the disciplinary power of surveillance from the prison to the museum context, Bennett argues that “to see and be seen, to survey yet always be under surveillance, the object of an unknown but controlling look… expositions realized some of the ideals of panopticism in transforming the crowd into a constantly surveyed, self-watching, self-regulating, and… consistently orderly public—a society watching over itself” (91). The performance of taking out one’s opera glasses at the public unveiling of Among the Sierra Nevada, California, in 1868 was a performance of class decorum, appreciation of art, and cosmopolitanism—a performance that solidified norms of art spectatorship and public behavior more broadly in Western high culture. While not transmitted entirely to present-day spectatorship of the painting, the arrangement of the exhibition, with its citational velvet curtains and its instructive lounge, does firmly regulate viewers’ behavior and participation in the room.
The curtains and furniture of the exhibit are not, however, the sole regulators of the people who enter the Billings and John Cay Gallery. The massive landscape also contributes to the consolidation of norms in the museum setting, particularly in its impact on spectators’ emotions. Bierstadt was a member of the Hudson River School of painters, whose philosophy combined Romanticism’s emotional intensity and reverence of nature with the ideology of American independence. With its serene waters, heavenly clouds, and towering mountains, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, forces the attentive viewer to consider the beauty of nature and the intensity of the natural world. The central theme of the exhibit, then, is not an idea but rather an affect; captivation is the driving goal behind the painting’s content and its presentation in this gallery all to itself. The few people who walked into the room as I sat on the lounge taking notes were contemplative—you could really see the appreciation of the work in their faces, as well as their recognition that they are expected to take time to appreciate the work. With my boyfriend and I taking up the prime spots of the lounge (really, circular was not the best shape for allowing the most people possible to sit while viewing), the other spectators seemed a bit lost. I’ve spent a fair bit of time over my five years in DC sitting in front of this painting (this is my favorite exhibit), and my goal is always to watch the scene until it engulfs me. This takes some time, and the room’s setup encourages this behavior, but it does not allow more than a couple people to sit down and properly appreciate the painting at any one time. If you can’t get a seat front and center, you’re left feeling like you’re hovering, lingering, in a way that distracts from the artwork and refocuses attention on the self.
In this vein, accessibility becomes a problem. The Smithsonian American Art Museum has elevators, wide hallways, and plenty of staff to help if needed—the physical accessibility of the space is very good. For this particular exhibit, however, the accessibility is still an issue because this big lounge in the middle of the room is positioned in the best spot for viewing the entirety of the piece, and if a person is unable to sit down there, the viewing experience is compromised. The choreography of inviting a standing person to sit so that they can look up at the painting is also crucial for communicating the central theme of emotional captivation. So if someone is unable to stand, walk, sit, and crane the neck upwards, this poses problems for equitable viewing across spectators of varying abilities. In this way, some people with disabilities become excluded from fully participating in the norms of the space, marking them as social outcasts. If this poorly selected lounge were not in the middle of the exhibit, viewing might be more equitable across the physical ability spectrum.
The Great Picture, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, is the sole occupant of the Billings and John Cay Gallery, not that this small room can contain even this one painting’s draw. Imagining the gallery filled with smaller paintings, it could comfortably house six, with placards, but sharing the two blank walls with other paintings would be unacceptable for this majestic landscape; it would distract from the painting’s emotional intensity and limit its capacity to captivate its audience. Not that this capacity is entirely uninhibited; the room is exclusionary in its staging and the choreography that stems from it, and while this choreography might stimulate meaning-making for some viewers, others are not afforded this aid. Among the Sierra Nevada, California, then, is a beautiful, captivating, and awe-inspiring painting, but its presentation is far from ideal.
Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex,” in Thinking About Exhibitions, ed. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne (London: Routledge, 1996).