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Albert Bierstadt Photo

Albert Bierstadt

German-American Landscape Painter

Born: January 7, 1830 - Solingen, Rhine Province, Germany
Died: February 18, 1902 - New York, New York
"Truly all is remarkable and a wellspring of amazement and wonder. Man is so fortunate to dwell in this American Garden of Eden."
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Albert Bierstadt Signature
"The artist ought to tell his portion of [...] history as well as the writer; a combination of both will assuredly render it more complete."
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Albert Bierstadt Signature
"Christ is one with His creatures and so man must treat his fellow creatures as Christ would. The continual slaughter of native species must be halted before all is lost."
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Albert Bierstadt Signature
"The magnificent beauty of the natural world is a manifestation of the mysterious natural laws that will be forever obscured from us."
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Albert Bierstadt Signature
"The color of the mountains and of the plains, and, indeed, that of the entire country, reminds one of the color of Italy; in fact, we have here the Italy of America in a primitive condition."
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Albert Bierstadt Signature
"We have a great many Indian subjects. We were quite fortunate in getting them, the natives not being very willing to have the brass tube of the camera pointed at them."
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Albert Bierstadt Signature

Summary of Albert Bierstadt

Although taken to task by critics in his later years for being excessive and unrefined, Bierstadt is today widely considered one of America's greatest landscape artists; a man whose paintings offer a unique picture of American natural history during the second half of the nineteenth century. Produced from photographs and sketches, he made epic panoramas of the untamed American West that proved immensely popular with the American public. Vast in scale, and overwhelming in their emotional impact, he applied color for romantic rather than naturalistic effect. Strongly influenced by his tours of Europe, his paintings promoted the idea of conservation, culminating in the establishment of new National Parks, while at the same time highlighting the plight of Native Americans and the threat of extinction to the buffalo.

Accomplishments

  • Bierstadt is linked to the second-generation of Hudson River School painters. Like his contemporaries Frederic Church and Thomas Moran, Bierstadt gained renown for his willingness to trek vast distances, often over dangerous rugged terrain, in search of the most spectacular scenery. Taking his stylistic lead from the Düsseldorf School of landscapists, and inspired thematically by his own tour of Alpine regions of Switzerland and Italy, he produced a romanticized and finely detailed version of the American West which he composed from a choice of his own sketches and photographs.
  • Although it is associated chiefly with paintings on a somewhat less grandiose scale, Bierstadt was nevertheless seen as a pioneer of the style that would become known as Luminism. It was a term used to describe landscapes with lustrous lighting effects that promoted a sense of contemplation and tranquility in the viewer. Indeed, Luminism was seen as a transcendental experience that could only be achieved by immersing oneself in the wonders of nature.
  • Arguably Bierstadt's most famous painting, Domes of Yosemite (1867), helped promote what was to become perhaps America's most cherished natural wonder: the mountain peaks of the Yosemite Valley. The Art Institute of Chicago described how Bierstadt had "enhanced the natural scene by narrowing the valley and dramatically accentuating the heights of the mountains" in a way that invoked the "gothic architecture and the soaring heights of a medieval cathedral's central nave". Such was the success of this painting that in 1882 a viewing platform was installed at the same vantage point from where Bierstadt initially composed his scene.
  • Towards the end of his career, Bierstadt complemented his American and European works, with a series of "tropical" landscapes which he composed while staying in the Bahamas. Moving away from his Luminist technique, his Bahamian works showed the artist in a more expressive state of mind. These land and seascapes used bolder, more brilliant, colors and were concerned, not so much with the sublime presence of nature, but rather the lives and daily activities of local inhabitants.

Biography of Albert Bierstadt

Detail from <i>Mountain and River Scene</i> (1864)

Bierstadt belongs to that group of artists for whom nature was to be treated as a sublime force, "The magnificent beauty of the natural world is a manifestation of the mysterious natural laws", he said, and predicted that despite the very best efforts of artists, the natural world would "be forever obscured from us".



Progression of Art

Staubbach Falls, Near Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland (1856)
1856

Staubbach Falls, Near Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

This early work by Bierstadt was produced during the final year of his four-year tour of Europe, where he learned to paint en plain air under the mentorship of German-American history painter Emanuel Leutze and American landscape painter Worthington Whittredge. When he created this work, which presents a forested valley with cascading waterfalls to the right, and imposing, snow-covered mountains in the background, he was traveling with Whittredge through the Swiss Alps. There is little doubt that Whittredge (who himself spent the first sixteen years of his life in the fields and forests of rural Ohio) instilled in Bierstadt a sincere and profound admiration and affection for the divine beauty and power of nature.

This work underlines the way in which Bierstadt was influenced by Whittredge and, albeit indirectly, by other members of the Düsseldorf School of Painting. These artists focused on presenting romanticized, dramatic, detailed landscapes using subdued and well-balanced color palettes. Indeed, Bierstadt was instrumental in introducing the Düsseldorf School approach to the Hudson River School of artists when he returned to the United States. As arts writers Martha N. Hagood and Jefferson C. Harrison note, Bierstadt also took from the Düsseldorf painters the "idea that landscapes were to be seen as multiple views and examined in great detail".

Evidently, Bierstadt continued to use his experiences in Europe as a reference point even after his return to the United States. In an 1859 letter to the nineteenth-century journal The Crayon, he wrote "If you can form any idea of the scenery of the Rocky Mountain and of our life in this region [...] I shall be very glad [...] The mountains are very fine; as seen from the plains, they resemble very much the Bernese Alps, one of the finest ranges of mountains in Europe, if not the world. They are of granite formation, the same as the Swiss mountains and their jagged summits, covered with snow and mingling with the clouds, present a scene which every lover of landscape would gaze upon with unqualified delight".

Oil on canvas - Private collection

The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863)
1863

The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak

This painting secured Bierstadt's position as the foremost American landscape painter of his day. It was produced in his New York studio based on sketches and photographs he produced during the 1859 survey expedition to the Rocky Mountains. He presents a verdant, untamed landscape with an encampment of Native Americans in the foreground, and the majestic soaring mountains in the background. Indeed, what set Bierstadt apart from other members of the Hudson River School was his focus on the Western regions of the country, and his expeditions there.

Like so many of his works from this period, the painting served as a sort of advertisement for an untamed "promised land" to be conquered by White settlers. Bierstadt did not, however, present the landscape as it appeared, but rather altered aspects of it to amplify its effect on the viewer. For instance, he illuminated the waterfall in the mid-ground with an almost divine light, emphasizing the beauty of the scenery. Indeed, the term "luminism" has been applied to this type of hazy lighting effect, popular with American landscape painters of the mid-nineteenth century (particularly those of the Hudson River School), which conveys a sense of tranquility, and enhances the sense of the sublime; that being the evocation, through art, the feeling of being humbled by the power and majesty of nature. The Luminist style also required that the artists' brushwork remained transparent as to avoid any potential distraction from the sheer majesty of the view.

The inclusion of the Native American settlement (a motif that Bierstadt repeated in other works, such as Merced River, Yosemite Valley (1866)) adds to the sense of exoticism of the landscape. However, it seems that Bierstadt also intended for the Native Americans in his paintings to serve as a visual record of their existence. In a letter to the journal, The Crayon (dated 1859) he wrote: "We often meet Indians, and they have always been kindly disposed to us and we to them; but it is a little risky, because being very superstitious and naturally distrustful, their friendship may turn to hate at any moment [...] The manners and customs of the Indians are still as they were hundreds of years ago, and now is the time to paint them, for they are rapidly passing away; and soon will be known only in history".

Oil on canvas - The Met Museum, New York, New York

The Domes of the Yosemite (1867)
1867

The Domes of the Yosemite

The New York banker and financier, Legrand Lockwood, commissioned Bierstadt to create this work for what was then the astronomical fee of $25,000. The painting, which was to take pride of place at Legrand's newly built home in Connecticut, reveals the famous Yosemite Valley; its peaks and sheer cliffs, soaring waterfalls, grassy plains, and winding river, in all its natural glory. The painting exemplifies Bierstadt's use of glowing and diffuse lighting effects to heighten the sublime sensibility of his scene. It also reveals the influence of the Düsseldorf School on his work; notably through its high degree of linearism - the focus on structural, architectural-like, representation of surfaces - as clearly evidenced here in the modeled rock faces.

Bierstadt based this, his largest-ever painting, on sketches and photographs he took while on his second expedition West. He was joined by the author Fitz Hugh Ludlow who wrote of his first glimpse of the valley: "We did not so much seem to be seeing from that crag of vision a new scene on the old familiar globe as a new heaven and a new earth into which the creative spirit had just been breathed. I hesitate now, as I did then, at the attempt to give my vision utterance. Never were words so beggared for an abridged translation of any Scripture of Nature".

In the foreground, the shadows cast over the trees, grass, and rocky outcroppings serve an almost metaphorical purpose, alluding to the popular belief that this region of the country was a hidden paradise that, for the few who managed to access it, presented sublime views of the nation's untapped natural resources. Works such as these not only inspired a generation of explorers to venture westward, but also helped to motivate the government to protect the region from exploitation, culminating in President Abraham Lincoln including the region in the United States' first public land trust in 1864. In 1882, a viewing platform was installed at the same vantage point from which Bierstadt and Ludlow viewed this scene.

Oil on canvas - St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, St Johnsbury, Vermont

The Emerald Pool (1870)
1870

The Emerald Pool

Bierstadt said of The Emerald Pool, "I never had so difficult a picture to paint, [but] my artist friends think it is my best picture and so do I". The painting, based on some 200 sketches and three painted studies that he produced between 1852 and 1869, presents a scene at the Peabody River at the White Mountains in New Hampshire, which he often visited with his brother Edward (staying at the nearby Glen House tourist accommodation). The image shows a forest in late summer (with only some of the trees' green leaves beginning to turn yellow and orange) surrounding a lake, behind which a waterfall trails down a gentle slope from the mountain in the background, partially obscured by fluffy clouds.

In 1871, a critic for the San Francisco Bulletin wrote of The Emerald Pool: "We have seen no painting that came nearer our ideal of the best landscape art, combining perfect truth with freedom, largeness and sentiment". Similarly, arts writers Martha N. Hagood and Jefferson C. Harrison asserted that Bierstadt "depicts the wilds of New Hampshire as a new Eden, an unspoiled paradise of fierce beauty and absolute tranquility", adding that "Bierstadt's presence at the Glen House did not go unnoticed and his painting of The Emerald Pool actually increased tourism in the area". Indeed, numerous stereographic photographs produced by Bierstadt's brothers Edward and Charles of the site helped further promote tourism to the area.

This painting also exemplifies Bierstadt' association with the Hudson River School of artists, who, at a time when urban industrialization was on the march, sought to showcase the richness of the untamed American wilderness. To this end, Hagood and Harrison note that Bierstadt "depicts the cyclical aspects of nature through foliage in various stages of growth, death, decay, and rebirth as well as through the change of season from late summer to early autumn as demonstrated by the tonal variation in the foliage. Trees have fallen of their own accord, not felled by the clean edge of man's axe; no suggestion of the machine is seen in this garden [...] The viewer sees no hint of the rail system, luxury-enabling hotels, or the very commercial tourist industry just minutes from this scene of natural splendor".

Oil on canvas - The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia

Bahamian View (c. 1880)
c. 1880

Bahamian View

Art historian William H. Gerdts argues that while Bierstadt is "justly regarded as one of the greatest of the landscape painters of the American West", he has received rather less attention for the "superb artistry [he brought] to his scenic depictions of other regions, [including his] small but compelling body of work in the Bahamas". When Bierstadt's wife Rosalie was diagnosed with Tuberculosis in 1876, she was advised by doctors to spend the colder months in a warmer climate and so the couple spent the winter months in Nassau where Bierstadt discovered a new sort of landscape to inspire him. In this work, for instance, we look past a grove of palm trees, blowing in the gentle tropical breeze, and other tropical shrubs and flowering bushes towards a small group of buildings with thatched rooves. Beyond that, we can view an emerald green bay, bordered in the distance by a rocky outcropping with a small white lighthouse and, in the far background, a deep blue sea dotted with white sailboats.

Bierstadt produced numerous other tropical landscape - such as Nassau Harbor (1877), Street in Nassau (1878), The Shore of the Turquoise Sea (1878), and A View of the Bahamas (1879) - that point to some stylistic cross-over with fellow American landscape painter Winslow Homer, who was also painting in the Bahamas around this time. In a departure from Homer, and indeed from his earlier American and European landscapes, Bierstadt's tropical land and seascapes used bolder, more brilliant, colors. As Gerdts concludes, "Though somewhat reminiscent of Bierstadt's oil sketches of Southern Italy and the beach at Capri painted in the late 1850s, [his Bahamian] pictures otherwise differ substantially from most of the rest of [his] works. In place of a concern with the natural sublime, Bierstadt investigated and captured the appearance of the town and landscape of Nassau and the lively activities of the local inhabitants, recorded in brilliant colours and suffused in warm sunlight".

Oil on canvas - Private collection

The Last of the Buffalo (1888)
1888

The Last of the Buffalo

The Last of the Buffalo marked a pivotal moment in Bierstadt's career. It was painted when the monumental romanticized landscapes to which his name was inextricably linked were being written off as excessive and old-fashioned. Undeterred, Bierstadt presented this composite Western landscape, most strongly informed by the Great Plains of the flatlands of North America. In the foreground, a group of Native Americans, wearing loincloths and feathered headdresses, and mounted on horses, battle a herd of buffalo, most of whom already lay slain at the bottom-right portion of the image. It was a controversial topic because at the time that the work was produced buffalo were thought to be facing extinction. As arts scholars Helena Wright, Linda Ferber, and Nancy K. Anderson note, this painting was "a masterfully conceived fiction that addressed contemporary issues" linking the diminishing number of buffalo to the circumstances of the Native American peoples, who were being relocated from their homes to reservations (following the "Indian Removal Act" of 1830).

When Bierstadt submitted the painting for the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1889, it was rejected. As arts writer Charles McQuillen notes, Bierstadt's "popularity had significantly declined and critics had become more vocal. His oversized canvasses were condemned as self-indulgent, his effects as excessive, and his compositions formulaic. Bierstadt's academic style was seen as old fashioned as Impressionism rose to prominence in the art world". Bierstadt was baffled and perturbed by the rejection, writing: "It is a matter of indifference to me but I cannot understand why you refuse my picture [The Last of the Buffalo] was one of my latest and was considered by my friends and competent critics as among my best efforts [...] I have endeavored to show the buffalo in all his aspects and depict the cruel slaughter of a noble animal now almost extinct. The buffalo is an ugly brute to paint, but I consider my picture one of my very best".

Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.


Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Albert Bierstadt
Influenced by Artist
Artists
  • No image available
    Emanuel Leutze
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    Worthington Whittredge
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    Richard Caton Woodville
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    Eastman Johnson
  • No image available
    James McDougal Hart
Friends & Personal Connections
Artists
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    William Bliss Baker
Friends & Personal Connections
Movements & Ideas
Open Influences
Close Influences

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Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd

"Albert Bierstadt Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
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First published on 20 Nov 2021. Updated and modified regularly
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