Biography of Albert Bierstadt
Albert Bierstadt was the youngest of six children, and the middle of three brothers, born to Henry Bierstadt, a Cooper, and Christina M. Tillmans. Before Albert was two years old, the family emigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the whaling industry, and its high demand for barrels, provided Henry and his family with a comfortable standard of living. Bierstadt developed an early passion for art and, though paints proved hard to come by, he enjoyed sketching and drawing with crayons. It was, as Albert later recalled, a happy childhood, but little else is known about his early years. It is recorded, however, that while still a teenager he assisted English-born landscape painter George Harvey on a traveling show in which the artist projected images of his paintings onto a small theater screen (for an entrance charge of 25-cents).
Education and Early Training
Bierstadt was mainly self-taught and, at the age of twenty, started offering his services as a drawing teacher in New Bedford. One year later, he began to experiment with oil paints. He also exhibited thirteen of his works for the first time with the New England Art Union in Boston. Then, in 1853, after exhibiting at the Massachusetts Academy of Fine Arts, and after making a trip to New Hampshire's White Mountains range, he travelled to northern Europe where he hoped to study at the Düsseldorf School.
The Düsseldorf School was a run by a group of painters, including Andreas Achenbach, Karl Friedrich Lessing, Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, and Hans Fredrik Gude, who were part of the German Romanticism movement. These artists were advocates of the en plein air (in the open air) painting technique and their works often carried religious overtures. (Bierstadt had hoped to connect with his distant relative, and prominent member of the Düsseldorf school, Johann Peter Hasenclever, but Hasenclever had sadly passed away shortly before Bierstadt arrived.)
While in Düsseldorf, Bierstadt sought out the German-American history painter Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze and the American landscape painter Worthington Whittredge who he hoped would be able to convince Achenbach to take him on as his student. However, they judged Bierstadt's work to be overtly decorative and convinced him of the lie that Achenbach did not take on new students. The arts writer Charles McQuillen notes that Leutze and Whittredge did, however, encourage him to persevere with his own style which would ultimately give rise to "theatrical compositions, hard-edged Neoclassical drawing techniques, careful attention to detail, and romanticized landscapes [which were] sentimental, fanciful, and allegorical in content [and] painstakingly executed in a highly finished style".
Bierstadt remained in Europe for four years, where he devoted himself to his art. During his last year in Europe, he travelled with Whittredge through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy (where he spent the winter months visiting Rome, Naples, and Capri). He returning to New Bedford in 1857 as a matured artist. He taught drawing and painting for a brief period, before devoting his time fully to his own work.
Initially Bierstadt produced works based on fictional European scenes. Then, in late 1857, he joined Frederick W. Lander's overland survey, traveling to the western part of the United States and the Rocky Mountains. Lander had been contracted by the government to survey, engineer, and later build, what would become known as the "Lander Trail" across Wyoming and Idaho. Bierstadt made countless sketches along the way and also started to dabble in the new medium of photography. His sketches and photographs formed the basis for the vast vistas he would execute later in his studio. In 1859, Bierstadt travelled this time to the Platte River and Wind River Mountains, taking in the breathtaking scenery and sketching scenes of life for native inhabitants. He proceeded to the Rockies, where the views sometimes bettered even those of the European Alps. Bierstadt was so enthused he declared "Our own country has the best material for the artist in the world". His first important painting from this period (now lost) was Base of the Rocky Mountains (c.1860).
In the spring of 1858, Bierstadt impressed critics in New York, with a large painting of Lake Lucerne in the Swiss Alps, when it was included in the annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design (NAD). He made such an impression that a few weeks later he was made an honorary member of the NAD. He moved to New York and set himself up in the Tenth Street Studio Building. Bierstadt soon developed a strong reputation for his paintings of the mountainous American West, including one of his most highly praised works, The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863). Around this time, he also established a successful photography business in New York City with his brothers Charles and Edward (the business ran from 1860 to 1866).
In early 1863, Bierstadt headed westward once more, this time with author Fitz Hugh Ludlow (perhaps best known for his book The Hasheesh Eater, which detailed his experiences using drugs). The two men passed through Utah and San Francisco, spending seven weeks in the Yosemite Valley, before making their way back home via Oregon. Soon after, Ludlow and his wife, Rosalie, divorced leaving her free to court Bierstadt. Despite this, Ludlow and Bierstadt remained close friends with Ludlow emerging in fact as one of the artist's strongest champions. (He wrote about their expeditions in articles for The Atlantic Monthly, and later, in a book titled The Heart of the Continent (1870). Ludlow was also the art critic for The New York Evening Post for which he wrote laudatory reviews of Bierstadt's paintings.)
Later in 1863, Bierstadt was called up for military service but paid another man to serve in his place. The following year, his painting Rocky Mountains was exhibited at the New York Sanitary Fair next to the work of the highly respected landscapist, Frederic Edwin Church. It was praised by influential art critic James Jackson Jarves for displaying "an unsurpassed rendition of American light". In 1865, with his reputation now in the ascendency, Bierstadt built a home/studio, named "Malkasten", in Irvington, North of New York City, which overlooked the Hudson River. From here, Bierstadt ventured to New England and New Hampshire, often with his brother Edward (as a photographer). It was in New Hampshire in fact that he executed what is considered by many to be amongst his most accomplished works, Emerald Pool (1870).
Bierstadt became associated with the so-called second-generation Hudson River School. The artists were considered "second" because they ventured beyond the immediate Hudson region to more far-flung domestic locations. Indeed, Bierstadt (along with Thomas Moran) shifted his focus geographically and presented the Western landscape as the epitome of the nation's untapped natural resource. Moreover, whereas the Hudson's group's founder, Thomas Cole, placed emphasis on creating sublime, allegorical images of nature, the second-generation artists shifted their approach, focusing more on careful observation of the landscape, and the production of paintings that prompted a sense of contemplative serenity in the viewer.
By helping raise the great American West to a level of national consciousness, Bierstadt became linked to the concept of Manifest Destiny. This was the belief, widely held in nineteenth century America, that the white settlers of the West had accepted a God-given mission to conquer their environment as a way of creating a new "heaven on earth" (namely America). As historian Anne F. Hyde puts it, "Bierstadt painted the West as Americans hoped it would be, which made his paintings vastly popular and reinforced the perception of the West as either Europe or sublime Eden".
In 1866 Bierstadt and Rosalie were married and the newlyweds spent two years touring Europe. While in London they were granted an audience with Queen Victoria (a known admirer of his work); in Paris, Bierstadt received the prestigious Legion of Honour medal; and in Rome, the couple socialized with the renowned composer Franz Liszt. During these travels Bierstadt rented studios and continued to paint. Once Back in America, he headed West once more, this time to the Yosemite and Sierra Nevada region. Bierstadt stayed two years, sketching, and painting, and selling works to collectors in the local area.
In July 1871, the Bierstadt's travelled to San Francisco on the newly built transcontinental railroad. They remained in California until October 1873. In 1875, Bierstadt's painting The Discovery of the Hudson (1874) was installed in the United States Capitol Building, and the following year he was invited to visit the White House by President Rutherford B. Hayes. However, Bierstadt's work for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial was not at all well received and signaled the beginnings of a downturn in his artistic fortunes.
In autumn 1876, Rosalie was diagnosed with tuberculosis and advised by her doctor to recuperate in warmer climates. On her doctor's advice, the Bierstadt's retreated in the colder months to the Bahamas where Bierstadt sketched and painted the local tropical landscapes and seascapes with renewed vigor. Indeed, his painting, The Shore of the Turquoise Sea (1878), was perhaps his last critical success when it was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in 1880.
In 1882, Bierstadt's studio ("Malkasten") burned down, and he lost many works. This harsh setback coincided with a depressed art market. But the hardest blow to his morale came when his entry for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris, The Last of the Buffalo (1888), was rejected by the American selection committee. That same year Bierstadt made his final journey West, and then all the way North to Alaska. Sadly, however, he was being overshadowed by the rise of North American landscapist George Inness, an artist strongly influenced by the French Barbizon School, who was exploring Tonalism (a more tempered style that favored a limited range of middle value colors) and whose style was winning over critics and fellow artists.
In 1893 Rosalie passed away. The following year he remarried to a wealthy widow, but, due to an extravagant lifestyle, he declared personal bankruptcy. He was forced to sell his entire property and assets, including 150 paintings, to satisfy his creditors. Bierstadt spent his final years more-or-less forgotten; his works dismissed as overblown and outdated. He passed away suddenly on February 18, 1902. Buried at the Rural Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he was posthumously honored when Colorado's Mount Bierstadt was named in his honor.
The Legacy of Albert Bierstadt
With other second-generation members of the Hudson River school (including Asher B. Durand, John Frederick Kensett, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Thomas Moran, and Frederic Edwin Church), Bierstadt became famous in the nineteenth century for painting expansive vistas of the American landscape (not to mention landscapes of Europe, Canada, and the Bahamas). But what set Bierstadt (and Moran) apart from other Hudson School associates was his focus on the unexplored American West. In this respect he helped introduce the wider American public to its unclaimed frontiers and the untamed wilderness. Indeed, his scenes of an American "Promised Land" entered into the consciousness of the nation and inspired a generation of explorers and settlers to venture westward.
Although the style of Bierstadt and the Hudson River School artists fell out of favor at the end of the nineteenth century, artists of the American Regionalism movement of the 1930s (including Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood, and John Steuart Curry) showed their debt to the Hudson River School through a focus on detailed, realistic, and indeed often idealized, images of rural America at a time when much of the population had grown disillusioned with urban life and modern industry in the fallout from the Great Depression. Moreover, the approach of Bierstadt and other Hudson River School artists filtered down to twentieth century landscape photographers, such as Ansel Adams, whose breathtaking photographic vistas captured the majesty of the American landscape while at the same time supporting the causes of conservation through the establishment of National Parks.
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
Content compiled and written by Alexandra Duncan
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Antony Todd
First published on 20 Nov 2021. Updated and modified regularly