Albert Bierstadt was a German-American painter best known for his large landscape paintings of the American West. He was born in Solingen, Germany in 1830 and moved with his parents to Massachusetts one year later. During his childhood he developed a passion for art, which he carried with him for the rest of his life. He experimented with drawing and painting at a young age and eventually decided upon painting as his full-time profession.
He began training in Dusseldorf, Germany in his early twenties for a few years. Upon returning to America, he became a part of the Hudson River School of artists, well known for their romantic paintings of the Hudson River Valley and surrounding New England wilderness. There, Bierstadt developed a taste for the unique, rugged American landscape, and this experience prompted him to begin one of what would be many journeys west in 1859. Out west Bierstadt found the mountains to be on a class of their own, comparable only, he would say, to the Bernese Alps he’d witnessed in his travels through Europe, and even more majestic than the beautiful Catskills and White Mountains of New England.
Bierstadt’s success grew as he brought back more and more paintings depicting the then “new” frontier. His art appealed to the vision American businessmen held of a “land of plenty”, areas seemingly unspoiled and teeming with game and gold. He also captured the vastness and wildness of a land that was foreign to many of those who lived east of the Mississippi, a land on the verge of extinction, in ways. In a letter he wrote in July of 1859, Bierstadt wrote, of the Native Americans, “now is the time to paint them, for they are rapidly passing away; and soon will be known only in history.” (Hendricks, 73) Bierstadt beheld the beauty that lay before him, and realized its days were numbered. So he painted it, capturing America’s fading frontier with masterful artistic skill, and thereby establishing himself as “America’s most celebrated landscapist” (Hendricks, 140).
The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak is perhaps “the chef d’oeuvre of Bierstadt’s early career” (Hendricks, 140). It was the product of one of Bierstadt’s earliest visits to the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, an area which he’d paint several times again. One notices the beautiful use of color and a carefully crafted foreground, mid-ground, and background. It is a quintessential portrait of the 19th century American West. The following is one critic’s flattering opinion, taken from an 1864 showing at Sanity Fair’s Art Gallery:
Even dismissing the question of inspiration, and looking at ‘Lander’s Peak’ from a purely technical point of view, we are compelled to accord the picture a rank with the foremost achievements in form and color. There are certain passages of it which indicate an acquaintance with artistic means unsurpassed in any painting of our age and country…The handling of these particulars is of a perfection which would entitle Bierstadt to the name of a great workman, did he not deserve that of a great artist more justly still…Its sunlight seems self supporting. It illumines a twilight room…these facts are decisive of the artist’s place in the very first rank of American genius.” (Hendricks, 147)
At this same Sanity Fair exhibit, which was lit up at night time by nearly 500 gas jets, Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains competed with some of America’s finest works of the 19th century, among them Church’s The Heart of the Andes and Leutze’s George Washington Crossing the Delaware. (Hendricks, 149) Nonetheless, Bierstadt’s masterpiece, accompanied by artifacts Bierstadt had collected on his trips out west, as well as a group of Native Americans, stole the spotlight; it was bought for $25,000, making it at that moment the most expensive American painting that had been sold to date. (Hendricks, 154)
The Domes of the Yosemite 9.5’x15’. This painting was painted on commission for Legrand Lockwood to be displayed in his Connecticut mansion. (Hendricks, 161) Throughout his career Bierstadt was criticized on account of his training in Düsseldorf. Some scholars felt the German style was hard and unfeeling, and made the German-American artist’s paintings ‘“beautiful” but ‘destitute of sentiment’.” (Hendricks, 164) Perhaps this had more to do with critics’ feelings of patriotism in America’s artistic “coming of age” than anything, however. To me, the feeling comes through here and in all of Bierstadt’s paintings as powerfully as does the scenery.
Bierstadt would paint his paintings based off of his own sketches he had drawn when in the field. Because of this, some of his paintings are less perfect depictions of exact locations and more a blending of features from different landscapes and from his own imagination. Still, many of his paintings managed to synthesize his sketches quite accurately and at times even “achieved a transcendent statement of the fresh wilderness.” (Hendricks, 9)
Hendricks, Gordon. Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West. New York: H. N. Abrams, 1974. Print.
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