Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


Worthington Whittredge, the American landscape artist, was born on May 22, 1820, on a farm near Springfield, Ohio. He began his career in Cincinnati, then spent a decade in Düsseldorf and Rome before settling in 1861 in New York City, where he became a leading member of the Hudson River school.

Spurred on perhaps by Albert Bierstadt, whom he had befriended in Europe, Whittredge joined Gen. John Pope on an inspection tour of the Central Plains in 1866 that left Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in early June for Fort Kearney, Nebraska Territory, then followed the Oregon Trail and South Platte River to Fort Collins and Denver, Colorado Territory. These areas provided him with most of his western subjects. From there the expedition went to Santa Fe, Albuquerque, and Fort Union, New Mexico, before returning to Fort Riley, Kansas, via the Old Santa Fe and Cimarron Trails. He returned for shorter visits in 1870 in order to sketch some trees near Fort Collins for his major work Crossing the Ford (1868–70) and again the following year to the Denver area.

Unlike Bierstadt, Whittredge was impressed not by the lofty height of the Rockies but by the breadth of the Plains, and the mountains provide no more than a backdrop in most of his paintings. The western pictures before 1870 are filled with romantic imagery inspired by the poems of William Cullen Bryant, who decisively influenced Whittredge's Hudson River pictures, while the later ones retain the freshness of his oil sketches, from which they are often nearly indistinguishable. The artist relied on his experiences in Europe to describe the Plains, but his paintings are mainly distinctive for an uncommon directness and lyricism that reflect his personality. He paid particular attention to conditions of light and atmosphere. Native Americans, however, served mainly to set the scene, and he had little interest in recording their ways of life, which he nevertheless depicted accurately. Whittredge built up a sizable stock of subjects showing the Plains and foothills of the Rockies, but in his large canvases he concentrated mainly on variants of several favorite compositions: On the Plains (1872), Crossing the Platte River (1872–74), and On the Cache La Oudre River (1876).

Despite his success in treating western landscapes, Whittredge stopped painting them after 1876, when his art underwent a major change under the impact of French Barbizon painting, especially the light-filled style of Charles Daubigny. Along with the other Hudson River painters, Whittredge was soon eclipsed by the American Barbizon school, but he remained a respected member of the New York art community until his retirement in 1900. He died on February 25, 1910, in Summit, New Jersey, where he had lived since 1880.

Anthony F. Jansen University of North Carolina-Wilmington

Janson, Anthony F. Worthington Whittredge. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990.

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