"Albert Bierstadt" by Napoleon Sarony
|Born||January 07 1830
|Died||February 18 1902 (aged 72)
|Movement||Hudson River School|
|Influenced||William Bliss Baker|
Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 - February 18, 1902) was a German-American painter best known for his large realistic landscapes of the American West. In obtaining the subject matter for these works, Bierstadt joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion. Bierstadt produced panoramic views of majestic mountains and cascading waterfalls in the American West that awed and inspired audiences back East. Though not the first artist to record these sites, Bierstadt was the foremost painter of these scenes for the remainder of the nineteenth century.
Bierstadt's was a second-generation member of the Hudson River School, which while not an institution, was an informal group of like-minded painters, named by New York Tribune art critic, Clarence Cook, or the landscape painter Homer D. Martin. The Hudson River School style involved carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism. However that style began to wane with the influence of the Barbizon school of artists in France. Bierstadt's style was cool, objective, very detailed and his technique was to make pencil sketches, small oil studies and his own photographic images. His work was known as new, Ideal Landscape and was "not fiction but portraiture," according to some. His Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, 1868 (oil on canvas), was described by the artist as the Garden of Eden, "the most magnificent place I was in," recalling Thomas Cole's Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, 1827-8 (oil on canvas).
Bierstadt continued to produce American landscapes in his own fashion long after the Hudson River artists had peaked and continued through the beginnings of Impressionism in Europe. Bierstadt's use of luminism places him in the second generation Hudson River School artists. Like other of the genre, his paintings appear to display the light of Manifest Destiny. He was a bridge from the romance of Thomas Cole to the realism of the Ashcan School and seemed to reflect what many Americans liked at that time. Although not fully recognized in his lifetime, he is now regarded as one of the greatest landscape artists in history.
Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Germany. His family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1833. In 1850, he decided on an art career and was advertising himself as an instructor in monochromatic painting. The same year he exhibited thirteen of his works and one drawing in Boston. His collaboration during the next three years with a daguerreotypist, who produced theatrical presentations of American scenery, laid the foundation for his lifelong interests in photography and North American topography.
In 1853, his family and others helped him to go to Düsseldorf to study. His mother's cousin, Johan Peter Hasenclever, was a teacher in the studios of the newest and most popular of art schools in Europe. The members of the Düsseldorf School descended from painter, Peter von Cornelius, a director of the Dusseldorf Academy. He made may reforms, including less stress on working from casts and more from life and placed an emphasis on landscape painting, which became Bierstadt's main interest. There was even a professorship for a landscape painter, which was unique for it's time.
Although Bierstadt had planned to study under Hasenclever, he had just died and the landscape teacher left to start a school elsewhere. He turned to a fellow American in Europe, Worthington Whittredge, and to Emmanuel Leutze. Leutze had painted Washington Crossing the Delaware and thought that, "here was another waif to be taken care of." Whittredge thought otherwise, noting the young artist's frugality and independence, and took him in hand and wrote often of his progress.
Whenever weather permitted, Bierstadt traversed Westphalia, filling his sketchbooks and making oil studies which he later worked up in the studio into full paintings. His Westphalia, done in 1855 (Oil on canvas, 43 x 58 1/2 inches, or 109.3 x 148.6 cm) is a well known example of realism. Some of his works during this time were shipped off to New Bedford, where they were sold and provided him an income that he formerly lacked.
In 1856, Albert set off, with friends, from Germany, through Switzerland to Italy where he stayed for a year, studying and painting. His works there included; Italian Village Scene (Olevano), 1860. (Oil on canvas, 30 x 48 inches, currently at Butler McCook Homestead, Antiquarian and Landmark Society, Inc., of Connecticut, Hartford) and Fishing boats at Capri, 1857 (Oil on paper mounted on canvas, 13 1/2 x 19 1/2 inches currently at Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, M. and M. Karolik Collection).
On returning home via England he worked up his many European compositions into finished compositions that he sold to the Boston Atheneum. One work, The Old Mill, was sold separately to a New Bedford family and has remained in it possession ever since.
On his return to New England in the autumn of 1857, Bierstadt set to work in earnest and when he first opened his studio to the public everyone was surprised by his talent. His reputation had been private up to this point with one or two works in local homes. Within a month of being home, he produced four major European landscapes, including, Spear Fishing (Lake Lucerne?) 1857-58. (Oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 49 inches), which was mentioned in the local press. He worked with an energy that did not fail him over the next forty years. At this time he advertised to teach once again but in a year acquired only four pupils. It was during this time that he painted one of his few portraits, that of an old Native American woman, Martha Simon, 1857 (Oil on cardboard, 19 x 13 feet).
Late in 1858, he painted his first historical painting, Gosnold at Cuttyhunk, 1602 (Oil on canvas, 28 x 49 inches). This was a site on the Elizabeth Islands that New Bedford's founder Bartholomew Gosnold, first set foot on and later traded for with the Indians. Bierstadt, painted the wildlife, flora and fauna, of this untouched wilderness and his heartfelt attachment to this kind of pristine place never left him.
In April 1859, he set out to travel west to the Rocky Mountains. Before leaving, New Bedford citizens were advised to buy his works while prices were right. The inference was that the West was a harsh and demanding place from which the artist might never return.
Boston artist, F. S. Frost, accompanied him to help him with photography and Bierstadt, armed with a stereograph camera and an introduction from the Secretary of War, for the military posts along the way, joined the wagon train of Colonel William Frederick Lander, Chief Engineer, for the U.S. government. Lander's assignment was to remap the Overland Trail.
Joining them in Missouri, the young artist set out for the greatest adventure of his young life. Many stereographic photographs, especially of the Native Americans, survive to this day, together with his sketches, some of which were later made into woodcuts by Harper's Weekly magazine, back east. Although he had technical problems with making good photographs of scenery, he created a unique record of the whole trip until finally they reached the famed Wind River Mountains.
In an oft quoted letter to The Crayon magazine, dated July 10, 1859, he wrote that as a lover of nature and art, he could not have wished for any better subjects. His letter is full of description of the region, their taking of the stereoscopic pictures and relationship with the Native Americans and his awe of the western mountains. Finally, he told of his decision to turn back, away from the Lander's party, in order to escape the coming rains that made travel so difficult.
Returning home had it's own travails and they had to subsist mostly on game. At Fort Laramie he was able to create portraits of Indians, which was a great challenge as many of them thought that their souls were being stolen. In his writings, Bierstadt expressed how enthralled he was by the American West and commented on the cloud formations, the play of light and shadow and golden sunsets so unlike the scenes he witnessed in Europe.
On returning to New Bedford, with many Native American artifacts, which would later become a large collection, he quickly set to capture on canvas, his summer's journey. Included were On the Platte River, Nebraska, Undated (Oil on pasteboard, 8 x 10 inches) done during the trip and those worked up on his return included; Horse in the Wilderness 1859-60? (Oil on board, 14 x 20 inches), Thunderstorm in the Rocky Mountains 1859 (Oil on Canvas, 19 x 29 inches), and Indian Encampment, Shoshone Village 1860 (Oil on canvas mounted on board, 24 x 19 inches).
He moved to New York City by the end of that year. Before he did that, ever mindful of family, he helped his elder brothers, Charles and Edward, to start a photography business, which not only showed their local work but Albert's western stereographs. The brothers later became famous photographers, both in Niagara Falls and New York City.
In New York City, Bierstadt took a place in the new and famous Studio Building, used by many distinguished artists, including, John LaFarge and Frederic Edwin Church. He was not an instant success but did gain a reputation as the artistic spokesman of the American West. That time was a difficult one for artists as the Civil War was underway.
His first public exhibition of his western works in 1860 was a resounding success. Many commentators deemed the viewing of his depictions as an almost "religious" experience, associating his mountain spires with majestic cathedrals, his luminous skies with the awesome power of God.
Bierstadt was elected a full Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1860. In the same year, he made several painting trips to the White Mountains as well as to the southern United States.
In the Fall of 1861, Bierdstadt and an old friend got a five day pass to tour the Northern camps around Washington, D.C., to gather material about the war as did his brother, Edward. His sketches for Guerrilla Warfare 1862 (Oil on panel, 14 3/4 x 17 1/2 inches) were shown in New York. He also painted, from imagination, The Bombardment of Fort Sumter 1863 (Oil on canvas, 26 x 68 inches).
In 1863, he returned West again, in the company of two friends and the author Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who had gained infamy with a book of his personal addiction as The Hasheesh Eater and whose wife, Rosalie Osbourne, Bierstadt would later marry. Ludlow was to write an account of their travels for Atlantic Monthly and in 1870, a book, The Heart of the Continent, illustrated by Bierstadt's sketches. Traveling in grand style they were given free passage by the then Railway Presidents. After many adventures, Buffalo hunting, painting, and an introduction to Brigham Young, they arrived at the crystal waters of Lake Tahoe, in the California Sierra Nevadas.
Paintings from this period include; Emigrants Crossing the Plains 1867 (Oil on canvas, 60 x 96 inches) and The Oregon Trail 1869 (Oil on canvas, 31 x 49 inches).
From there they traveled to San Francisco, where they were wined and dined and it was apparently at this time that he met Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer of movement, whom he revered as a great artist. This was at a high point in both their careers and Bierstadt used some of his photographs as memory references for his paintings, at various times. Now reuniting with other old artist friends from his European days, his party moved on to the newly found Yosemite Valley.
A spectacular view of the falls there resulted in Camping in the Yosemite 1864 (Oil on canvas, 43 x 27 inches) and California Redwoods 1875 (Oil on Canvas, 117 x 50). At the base of Giant Grizzly, one of the trees in the Mariposa grove, stands the Yosemite pioneer Galen Clark whom he met there. His Yosemite paintings would later make him famous throughout the world.
From Yosemite the party headed to Mount Shasta north of Sacramento and upwards to Oregon to view the Cascade Mountains, which he described as "one of the most magnificent views in all earthly scenery." Thanking God for this he made studies of Mount Hood which later became a painting said to be better than, The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak. Returning by steamer from there they departed for San Francisco and by way of Panama arrived back in New York by December, 1863.
By 1864, Bierstadt had equaled and even surpassed Frederic Edwin Church as America's leading landscapist. Even in Great Britain Bierstadt was hailed as the successor to J. M. W. Turner. He and Church were exhibited opposite one another along with six hundred other works at the Sanitary Fair, New York, with Bierstadt adding a number of Native American artifacts to his exhibit. At night the exhibition was illuminated by 490 gas jets. Frederick Church was known to have asked Bierstadt's advice on his painting Niagara.
Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak 1863 (Oil on canvas, 73 1/2 x 120 3/4 inches) sold for $25,000. It was the largest sum ever paid for an American painting at that time. The buyer, an American living in London, took it to Europe but Bierstadt was able to buy it back later and either gave it or sold it to his brother. It currently resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. For many years, when he wanted to pay his friends a particular compliment, he gave them an autographed engraved copy of this painting.
In July 1866, his father died, but in November he gained a wife, Rosalie Osbourne Ludlow, divorced from a marriage to his old friend. They married in Waterford, New York. With the need for a real home, Bierstadt built Malkasten in Irvington, New York, on the banks of the Hudson River, close to Washington Irving's, "Sunnyside." In 1867, Bierstadt and his wife sailed for Europe where they stayed for two years, maintaining studios in London, Paris, and Rome. Upon their return, Bierstadt continued to visit and paint vistas of the American West.
Though his paintings sold for large sums, Bierstadt was not held in particularly high esteem by contemporary critics. His use of uncommonly large canvases was thought to be self indulgent. His paintings invariably dwarfed those of his contemporaries when displayed together. However, his customers tended to have great houses with large interior walls and sought after great paintings. The romanticism evident in his choices of subject and his use of light was felt to be excessive by contemporary critics, a charge that continues to be leveled by many of today's art historians. His paintings emphasized atmospheric elements like fog, clouds, and mist to accentuate and complement the feel of his work. Bierstadt sometimes changed details of the landscape to inspire awe. The colors he used are sometime criticized for being not always true. He painted what he believed is the way things should be: water is ultramarine, vegetation is lush and green and so on. The shift from foreground to background was very dramatic and there iss almost no middle distance in his paintings.
Relatively forgotten for decades, the 1940s brought a revival of interest in Bierstadt's paintings that continues to the present day.
On March 1, 1893, Rosalie Bierstadt died at the age of fifty-two after a long struggle with tuberculosis. A year later, Bierstadt married Mary Hicks Stewart, widow of David Stewart, a Boston banker and the father, by an earlier marriage, of Isabella Stewart Gardner, a prominent art collector. For a wedding gift, Bierstadt gave his new wife an historical painting, Landing of Columbus. After Bierstadt's death, she gave the painting to the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.
The couple lived in New York City and Bierstadt kept a fairly regular schedule of painting, although his popularity declined. The couple traveled to Europe several times, and on one trip were entertained by Queen Victoria on the Isle of Wight. Although his wife was wealthy, they kept their finances separate. In 1895, Bierstadt declared bankruptcy. Seven years later, on February 18, 1902, he died suddenly in New York City, having just returned from a walk. His body is buried beside his parents in the Rural Cemetery of New Bedford, Massachusetts.
Albert Bierstadt was a prolific artist, having completed over 500 known (possibly as many as 4000) paintings during his lifetime, most of which have survived. Original paintings themselves do occasionally come up for sale, at ever increasing prices.
Paintings by Albert Bierstadt are in the collections of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.; Crocker Art Gallery, Sacramento; National Academy of Design, New York; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; St. Louis Art Museum; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Detroit Institute of Arts; Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York; Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco; Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond, to name a few.
Because of Bierstadt's interest in mountain landscapes, Mount Bierstadt in Colorado is named in his honor. Another Colorado mountain was originally named Mount Rosa, after Bierstadt's wife, but it was later renamed Mount Evans after 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.
William Bliss Baker, another landscape artist, studied under Bierstadt.
All links retrieved February 24, 2016.
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