Albert Bierstadt, Private Collection
Albert Bierstadt was one of the most prominent and influential American landscape painters of the 19th century. With his enormous, detailed paintings of the Rocky Mountains and Sierra Nevada, he introduced many Easterners to the grandeur of the American West for the first time.
Born near Dusseldorf, Germany, Bierstadt emigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts with his family at age two. He returned to Dusseldorf 21 years later to study at the famed Royal Academy. Under the tutelage of Andreas Aschenbach and Karl Friedman Lessing, Bierstadt learned the tenets of the “Dusseldorf School,” characterized by attention to minute detail, exaggerated atmospheric effects, and heroic compositions, all combining to heighten the romantic appeal of the landscape.
During his four years of study, Bierstadt traveled extensively through Europe, sketching and painting with American friends from the Royal Academy including Sanford Gifford, Emanuel Leutze, and Worthington Whittredge. Honing his skills in the European landscape, Bierstadt returned to New Bedford in 1857, subsequently traveling to the White Mountains of New Hampshire for artistic inspiration. The next year, he exhibited for the first time at the National Academy of Design in New York, offering fourteen paintings of Europe and New England. The National Academy made Bierstadt a full member or “Academician” in 1860.
1860 also was the year that Bierstadt first saw the landscapes that would become the centerpiece of his career and help him become the most celebrated American artist of the next two decades. Attaching himself to a military expedition assigned to survey wagon routes in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming, Bierstadt not only reveled in the vastness of the western landscape, but observed in detail its flora, fauna, and human inhabitants. Gathering material for the paintings he would execute back in his New York studio, he not only made sketches and collected artifacts, but also took stereo photographs, being one of the first artists to gather material in this relatively new medium.
Bierstadt exhibited at least one of his Wyoming paintings at the National Academy of Design but it attracted relatively little attention. Over the next two years, he and his friend Emanual Leutze turned their attention to painting military scenes of Civil War encampments and forts. In 1863, however, Bierstadt returned to the West on an extended sketching trip, following the Overland Trail through Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. In San Francisco he met up with artist friends for an excursion into Yosemite.
It was the Yosemite paintings that made Bierstadt an overnight sensation. During the 1860s his work commanded higher prices than any American artist had ever received. The US Congress appropriated $20,000 for one canvas and also commissioned two historical murals for the Capitol Building. To satisfy the market for his Western paintings, Bierstadt returned to Calfornia in 1871 and stayed for two and one-half years painting in the Sierra Nevada, Tahoe, and Yosemite. He made a third trip to California in 1875, and a final western excursion in 1889, this time to Alaska.
Interest in Bierstadt’s work began to wane by the 1880s as the dramatic romanticism of the Dusseldorf style lost favor to the softer Barbizon school and then to French Impressionism. In 1889 he received a clear message of the public’s changing tastes when his canvas The Last of the Buffalo-now one of his most famous paintings-was rejected for the Paris Exposition. Bierstadt died in relative obscurity at his home in New York in 1902.
Although Bierstadt was (and still is) best known for his monumental landscape paintings, he produced a large body of excellent smaller, finished paintings primarily of landscapes and animals. These works, once again, command some of the highest prices for 19th century American painting.