Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was a German-American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West. To paint the scenes, Bierstadt joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion. Though not the first artist to record these sites, Bierstadt was the foremost painter of these scenes for the remainder of the 19th century.
Born in Prussia, Bierstadt was brought to the United States at the age of one by his parents. He later returned to study painting for several years in Düsseldorf. He became part of the Hudson River School in New York, an informal group of like-minded painters who started painting along the Hudson River. Their style was based on carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism. An important interpreter of the western landscape, Bierstadt, along with Thomas Moran, is also grouped with the Rocky Mountain School.
Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Prussia, the son of Christina M. (Tillmans) and Henry Bierstadt, a cooper. He had a brother who was 6 years older, the later photographer Edward Bierstadt. In 1831, when Albert was just one year old his family immigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts. At an early age he made clever crayon sketches in his youth and developed a taste for art.
In 1851, Bierstadt began to paint in oils. He returned to Prussia in 1853 and studied painting for several years in Düsseldorf with members of its informal school of painting. After returning to New Bedford in 1857, he taught drawing and painting briefly, before devoting himself full-time to painting.
In 1858, Bierstadt exhibited a large painting of a Swiss landscape at the National Academy of Design, which gained him positive critical reception and honorary membership in the Academy. Bierstadt began painting scenes in New England and upstate New York, including in the Hudson River valley. He was part of a group of artists known as the Hudson River School.
In 1863, he traveled West again, this time in the company of the author Fitz Hugh Ludlow, whose wife he later married. Throughout the 1860s, Bierstadt used studies from this trip as the source for large-scale paintings for exhibition and he continued to visit the American West throughout his career. The immense canvases he produced after his trips with Lander and Ludlow established him as the preeminent painter of the western American landscape. Bierstadt's technical proficiency, earned through his study of European landscape, was crucial to his success as a painter of the American West and accounted for his popularity in disseminating views of the Rocky Mountains to those who had not seen them.
During the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), Bierstadt was drafted in 1863 and paid for a substitute to serve in his place. By 1862, he had completed one Civil War painting Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War based on his brief experiences with soldiers stationed at Camp Cameron in 1861. That painting was based on a stereoscopic photograph taken by his brother Edward Bierstadt, who operated a photography studio at Langley's Tavern in Virginia. The painting received a positive review when it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December 1861. Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey observed that the painting, created from photographs, "is quintessentially that of a voyeur, privy to the stories and unblemished by the violence and brutality of first-hand combat experience."
In 1867, Bierstadt traveled to London, where he exhibited two landscape paintings in a private reception with Queen Victoria. He traveled through Europe for two years, cultivating social and business contacts to sustain the market for his work overseas. His exhibition pieces were brilliant images, which glorified the American West as a land of promise and "fueled European emigration". He painted Among the Sierra Nevada, California in his Rome studio for example, showed it in Berlin and London before shipping it to the U.S. As a result of the publicity generated by his Yosemite Valley paintings in 1868, Bierstadt's presence was requested by every explorer considering a westward expedition, and he was commissioned by the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad to visit the Grand Canyon for further subject matter.
Bierstadt's choice of grandiose subjects was matched by his entrepreneurial flair. His exhibitions of individual works were accompanied by promotion, ticket sales, and, in the words of one critic, a "vast machinery of advertisement and puffery."
Rosalie Bierstadt, unknown date
Despite his popular success, Bierstadt was criticized by some contemporaries for the romanticism evident in his choices of subject and his use of light was felt to be excessive.
In 1876, his wife was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and from then until her death in 1893, Bierstadt spent time with her in the warmer climate of Nassau in the Bahamas. He also continued to travel to the West and Canada. In later life, Bierstadt's work fell increasingly out of critical favor. It was attacked for its theatrical tone.
Interest in Bierstadt's work was renewed in the 1960s with the exhibition of his small oil studies. Subsequent reassessment of his work has placed it in a favorable context, as stated in 1987:
The temptation (to criticize him) should be steadfastly resisted. Bierstadt's theatrical art, fervent sociability, international outlook, and unquenchable personal energy reflected the epic expansion in every facet of western civilization during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Bierstadt was a prolific artist, having completed over 500 paintings during his lifetime.
Because of Bierstadt's interest in mountain landscapes, Mount Bierstadt and Bierstadt Lake in Colorado are named in his honor. Bierstadt was probably the first European to visit the summit of Mount Evans in 1863, 1.5 miles from Mount Bierstadt. Bierstadt named it Mount Rosa, a reference to both Monte Rosa above Zermatt and, Rosalie Ludlow, his future wife, but the name was changed from Rosalie to Evans in 1895 in honor of Colorado governor John Evans.
In 1998, the United States Postal Service issued a set of 20 commemorative stamps entitled "Four Centuries of American Art", one of which featured Albert Bierstadt's The Last of the Buffalo. In 2008, the USPS issued a commemorative stamp in its "American Treasures" series featuring Bierstadt's 1864 painting Valley of the Yosemite.
Anderson, Nancy K. et al. Albert Bierstadt, Art & Enterprise, Hudson Hills Press, Inc.: New York, New York, 1990.
Barringer, Tim and Wilton, Andrew. American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820-1880, Princeton University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-691-09670-8
Hendricks, Gordon. Albert Bierstadt, Painter of the American West, Harrison House/Harry N. Abrams, Inc.: New York, New York 1988.
Miller, Angela. "Albert Bierstadt, Landscape Aesthetics, and the Meanings of the West in the Civil War Era." Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies 27, no. 1 (Terrain of Freedom: American Art and the Civil War) (2001): 40–59 and 101–102.
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