August 02, 2019
On July 9, 1868, a dinner was held at the Langham Hotel in London to honor Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow was on the first leg of a grand tour of Europe along with much of his family, and he received numerous honors and accolades along the way.
Organized by the German-born American artist Albert Bierstadt, best known at the time for his imposing landscape paintings of the American West, the dinner was the occasion for the presentation of his painting “The Departure of Hiawatha” to Longfellow. Bierstadt had arrived in England the prior year, and was touring Europe to drum up interest in his paintings.
The painting depicts the final scene of Longfellow’s epic poem The Song of Hiawatha. Bierstadt almost certainly took his inspiration from the following stanza of Longfellow’s work:
And the evening sun descending
Set the clouds on fire with redness,
Burned the broad sky, like a prairie,
Left upon the level water
One long track and trail of splendor,
Down whose stream, as down a river,
Westward, westward Hiawatha
Sailed into the fiery sunset,
Sailed into the purple vapors,
Sailed into the dusk of evening:
Unlike Bierstadt’s better-known large landscape works, this painting is very modest in size, measuring only about 8” wide by 6” high. On the reverse is the menu of the dinner served on the occasion, an extravagant affair that included fish, chicken, venison, and, in a nod to the poem’s own content, “Mais a l’Americaine”, or corn.
Where Longfellow displayed the painting in his own home during his lifetime is unknown, but it has been hanging on the dining room wall since at least 1912.
Last updated: August 2, 2019