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Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was an 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 Germany, 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 this scenic 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, Germany. The following year, in 1831, his family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. At an early age Bierstadt developed a taste for art and made clever crayon sketches in his youth. In 1851, he began to paint in oils.
Map of Bierstadt's journey in 1859 and 1863.
He returned to Germany 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 he 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. At this time Bierstadt began painting scenes in New England and upstate New York, including in the Hudson River valley. A group of artists known as the Hudson River School portrayed its majestic landscapes and craggy areas, as well as the light affected by the changing waters. .
In 1859, Bierstadt traveled westward in the company of Frederick W. Lander, a land surveyor for the U.S. government, to see those landscapes. He returned to a studio he had taken at the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York with sketches that would result in numerous finished paintings. In 1863 he traveled west again, this time in the company of the author Fitz Hugh Ludlow, whose wife he would later marry. Throughout the 1860s, Bierstadt used studies from this trip as the source for large-scale paintings for exhibition. He continued to visit the American West throughout his career.
During the American Civil War, Bierstadt paid for a substitute to serve in his place when he was drafted in 1863. He completed one Civil War painting Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War in 1862, based on his brief experiences with soldiers stationed at Camp Cameron in 1861. Bierstadt's painting was based on a stereo photograph taken by his brother Edward Bierstadt, who operated a photography studio at Langley's Tavern in Virginia. Bierstadt's 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 observes that Bierstadt's 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 1860, he was elected a member of the National Academy; he received medals in Austria, Bavaria, Belgium, and Germany. In 1867 he 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.
A trip to the Yellowstone region in 1871 yielded numerous drawings of the area's geysers and picturesque topography. These works were instrumental in convincing the United States Congress to pass the Yellowstone Park Bill in 1872, thus establishing the first national park in the world. Soon thereafter Congress purchased a large painting from Bierstadt for $10,000. As a result of the publicity generated by his Yellowstone paintings, 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.
Rosalie Bierstadt, unknown date.
Bierstadt's technical proficiency, earned through his study of European landscape, was crucial to his success as a painter of the American West. It accounted for his popularity in disseminating views of the Rockies to those who had not seen them. The immense canvases he produced after his trips with Lander and Ludlow established him as the preeminent painter of the western American landscape. Financial recognition confirmed his status: The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, completed in 1863, was purchased for $25,000 in 1865.
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. His exhibition pieces were brilliantly crafted images that glorified the American West as a land of promise. Bierstadt's choice of grandiloquent 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."
His wife was diagnosed with consumption in 1876, 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.
In 1882 Bierstadt's studio at Irvington, New York, was destroyed by fire, resulting in the loss of many of his paintings. By the time of his death on February 18, 1902, the taste for epic landscape painting had long since subsided. Bierstadt was then largely forgotten. He was buried at the Rural Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Interest in his work was renewed in the 1960s, with the exhibition of his small oil studies. The subsequent reassessment of Bierstadt's work has placed it in a favorable context:
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. Many of these are held by museums across the United States.
Main article: List of works by Albert Bierstadt
1855 - The Old Mill
1855 - The Portico of Octavia
1855 - Westphalia
1859 - The Wolf River, Kansas, c. 1859, oil on canvas, Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
1861 - Echo Lake, Franconia Mountains, NH, Smith College Museum of Art, Smith College, Northampton, MA
1863 - The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, oil on canvas, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, NY
1864 - Cho-looke, the Yosemite Fall, oil on canvas, Timken Museum of Art, San Diego, CA
1864 - Valley of the Yosemite, oil on paper, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
1866 - On the Hudson River Near Irvington, 1866-70, oil on paper, Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
1866 - A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie, oil on canvas, Brooklyn Museum, New York City, New York
1868 - Connecticut River Valley, Claremont, New Hampshire, 1868, oil on canvas, Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
1868 - In the Sierras, Fogg Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA
1868 - Among the Sierra Nevada, California, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
1869 - Glen Ellis Falls, oil on canvas, Zimmerli Art Museum, New Brunswick, NJ
1871 - Domes of Yosemite, c. 1871, St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, St. Johnsbury, VT
1874 - Giant Redwood Trees of California, c. 1874, oil on canvas, Berkshire Museum, Pittsfield, MA
1876 - Mount Corcoran, c. 1876–77, oil on canvas, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1888 - The Last of the Buffalo, oil on canvas, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1889 - Alaskan Coast Range, c. 1889, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
1891 - The Last of the Buffalo, c. 1891, vintage photogravure, Valley Fine Art Gallery, Aspen, Colorado
1895 - The Morteratsch Glacier Upper Engadine Valley - Pontresina
Legacy and honors
Bierstadt Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park
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.
Valley of the Yosemite also appears in a scene in Terry Gilliam's 1995 film Twelve Monkeys, accompanied by several doctors singing "Blueberry Hill".
William Bliss Baker, another landscape artist, studied under Bierstadt.
List of Hudson River School artists
List of works by Albert Bierstadt
History of painting
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