Bierstadt was a German and traveled to the states in 1859 to make the trip westward along the Oregon Trail to California. Overcome with the beauty of his surroundings, he ventured alone for some time, taking in the beautiful landscapes and sketching whilst he explored. He became very interested in the wilderness of America and the west as well as the Native Americans he encountered. Bierstadt was intent on defining the expanse east of the Mississippi River for the American public, so he planned a second trip west. They set off in May of 1863 and along the way encountered a wagon train of German emigrants outside Fort Kearney in Nebraska. From this experience, Bierstadt created two pieces of art work, this one and The Oregon Trail in 1869.
Emigrants Crossing the Plains
I think this painting is extremely symbolic and that this was intended by the artist. When closely examining the artwork, it can be clearly seen that the emigrants are heading towards the bright sun. The artist could have been conveying ideas of hope, new beginnings or even Heaven. By migrating west, the emigrants would have been entering the "promised land" thus achieving salvation. The painting also highlights the vast nature that surrounded the emigrants and how this would have been extremely overwhelming. The darkness to the left of the painting, surrounding the woods and trees could symbolize the ferocity of nature in this unknown terrain. It is difficult to know whether or not this would have been intended, but historically, the dangerous and unpredictable wilderness of America caused serious problems for settlers in the west. Again, to the right of the painting, there are giant cliffs, highlighting the enormity of the country and how untouched this land was during this time period. The smallness of the humans, animals and wagons on the ground add to this effect. From this, it is obvious that most of the symbolic meanings within this painting were intended by the artist so that the audience could be made aware of how incredible the west was and that they should also migrate as to start a new and better life.