Wednesday, March 11, 2009


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Albert Bierstadt (January 8, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was a German-American painter best known for his large landscapes of the American West. In obtaining the subject matter for these works, 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.
Bierstadt was part of the Hudson River School, not an institution but rather an informal group of like-minded painters. The Hudson River School style involved carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism.
Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Germany. His family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1833. He studied painting with the members of the Düsseldorf School in Düsseldorf, Germany from 1853 to 1857. He taught drawing and painting briefly before devoting himself to painting.
Bierstadt began making paintings in New England and upstate New York. In 1859, he traveled westward in the company of Frederick W. Lander, a land surveyor for the U.S. government, returning with sketches that would result in numerous finished paintings. In 1863 he returned west again, in the company of the author Fitz Hugh Ludlow, whose wife he would later marry. He continued to visit the American West throughout his career.
Though his paintings sold for princely sums, Bierstadt was not held in particularly high esteem by critics of his day. His use of uncommonly large canvases was thought to be an egotistical indulgence, as his paintings would invariably dwarf those of his contemporaries when they were displayed together. The romanticism evident in his choices of subject and in his use of light was felt to be excessive by contemporary critics. 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 also not always true. He painted what he believed was the way things should be: water is ultramarine, vegetation is lush and green, etc. The shift from foreground to background was very dramatic and there was almost no middle distance.[citation needed]
Nonetheless, his paintings remain popular. He was a prolific artist, having completed over 500 possibly as many as 4000) paintings during his lifetime, most of which have survived. Many are scattered through museums around the United States.
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Beginning in 1859, he made three trips west, each time making oil sketches on paper. When he returned to his studio, he used these sketches and oil studies to paint huge, detailed panoramic views (some 6 feet by 10 feet) of Western scenery. His paintings emphasized the spectacular landscapes, sometimes exaggerating what he had seen and changing a few details to make the scene more interesting.
At the height of his career, he lived in a mansion on the Hudson; but his work fell out of favor, the mansion burned, and he died in New York City flat broke - Glenda Moore at

The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak
Oil on canvas
1867 x 306.7 cm (73 1/2 x 120 3/4 in)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Looking Up the Yosemite Valley
c. 1865-67
Oil on canvas
91.4 x 148.6 cm (36 x 58 1/2 in)
The Haggin Museum, Stockton, California

A Storm in the Rocky Mountains - Mount Rosalie
Oil on canvas
210.8 x 361.3 cm (83 x 142 1/4 in)
The Brooklyn Museum, New York
(Image enhanced by
Artchive Patron George Phillips)

Once thought to be lost, A Storm, the masterpiece of Bierstadt's early career, was acquired by the Brooklyn Museum in 1976. Although the space-box format is used, the composition is quite unusual. Generally, Bierstadt balanced his large paintings by setting a central valley or body of water between flanking units of equal strength. But in A Storm, the mountains to the right obviously tower over those on the left, and in place of the standard valley floor and rising mountains, he created a complex sequence of elevations by adding an intermediate level in the foreground. To control the contrasts between solid mountains and open spaces, and between near and far distances, Bierstadt imposed a severe two-dimensional system of patterns that can be traced by following the connecting contours of objects, regardless of their position in depth. For instance, the left edges of the distant mountain in the center are visually continued along the edges of the clump of trees in the center foreground.
Landscape features and plant life are carefully studied in a manner quite different from the earlier The Rocky Mountains. Bierstadt added highlights in several colors to the large masses and varied the color scheme of the mountains much more subtly and intricately than before. But he also succumbed to his penchant for elaborating fantastic cloud formations hovering over the distant mountains, their rococo flourishes not always cohering visually with the generally descriptive style of painting. Nor do these clouds necessarily allow space to appear continuous from the foreground to infinity as in, for example, View of Donner Lake, California .
Bierstadt preferred keeping episodic elements to a minimum, but, consonant with the extravagant nature of A Storm, the results of an Indian hunt can be seen, horses are being chased, and an Indian encampment fills part of the valley. Never again would he paint such a complex and crowded work. A Storm is an attempt to show all at once the incredible beauty of the mountains; the vast western spaces; the phenomenal cloud formations; the variety of trees, bushes, and flowers; and a hint of the life-styles of the original inhabitants. The painting is truly a grand-scale celebration of the American West
(From Matthew Biagell's book "Albert Bierstadt," published by Watson at

The Great Trees, Mariposa Grove, California
Oil on canvas
300.7 x 150.5 cm (118 3/8 x 59 1/4 in)
Private collection

Surveyor's Wagon in the Rockies
Oil on paper mounted on masonite, c.1859
7 3/4 x 12 3/4 inches (19.7 x 32.7 cm)
The Saint Louis Art Museum, Saint Louis
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

AIthough it is a small sketch, this work should be recognized as one of the talismanic paintings of the West. It probably records the shocking spatial disorientation triggered by seeing the endless plains and mountain ranges of the West for the first time. The wagon, the horses, and the rider are suspended in space somewhere in the open-ended plains.
Except for the continuous mountains, there are no markers by which to measure anything--no wagon tracks, hoofprints, bushes, compositional diagonals, or zigzags. The travelers move through a land without leaving a trace and are unable to measure easily the miles they have traversed. There is no possibility of determining the yardage to the grazing animals except by means of atmospheric color; proximity and distance are based on clarity of contour and color alone. Ironically, this, too, is disorienting, since one can see both more and farther in the clear air of wilderness than in the polluted air of towns and cities.
For Bierstadt, the plains were probably impossible to organize into compositional units, a factor that might explain his preference for mountain-valley themes. A generation ago, this type of landscape might have been termed "alienated," since the artist refused to organize and control it. Today we are more interested in process and mechanistic explanations and might call it a "nonstructured" or "nonspatialized" space. This kind of open composition was used later, in the late 1860s and after, in western paintings by Worthington Whittredge and John Kensett; Whittredge traveled west in 1866 and 1870, and Kensett in about 1856-57, 1868, and 1870
(From Matthew Biagell's book "Albert Bierstadt," published by Watson at

The Oregon Trail, 1869
Oil on canvas, 31 X 49" (78.74 x 124.46 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Gift of Joseph G. Butler, III
The Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Albert Bierstadt went west for the first time in 1859, a young, ambitious painter in the party of Colonel Frederick W. Lander, who had been charged by the Interior Department to survey a new wagon route to California which would go north of Salt Lake and thus prevent further friction between emigrants and Mormons. Lander was also to placate the Native Americans whose trading would be disrupted by relocating the California and Oregon wagon trails that
had been in use for years. The expedition offered the artist an opportunity to see America's fabled mountains, known to a fascinated public through written descriptions and photographs in black and white, and to encounter Native Americans in their natural setting. If the Rockies were as grand as the Alps, paintings of them would find buyers already enthusiastic at the prospects of westward expansion, especially merchants and boosters of the railroads.
When Bierstadt set out he was a better landscape painter than previous artists who had gone west, having studied for three years in Dusseldorf and painted in Italy. In Boston and his hometown of New Bedford, he was enjoying success with his paintings of landscape and European genre, due in no small measure to a talent for self-promotion.
Lander's expedition crossed Nebraska, and continued northwest following the North Fork of the Platte River into western Wyoming. Along the way Bierstadt sketched and took photographs of Native Americans and emigrants, some bound for Pike's Peak but others returning discouraged, like those he encountered near Fort Kearny with their 150 wagons. Yet three sketches published in 1859 as woodcuts in Harper's Weekly are among the very few Bierstadt images which include what was a common sight along the trail and the subject of The Oregon Trail: emigrants, animals, and wagons under way. By late June Bierstadt had left Lander, who continued on to California. Bierstadt stayed three weeks in the Wind River Mountains, sketching and photographing Native Americans and scenery. It was here, after exploring the mountains, that Bierstadt wrote a letter to The Crayon, an artistic journal, declaring the Rockies true rivals of the Alps and marking the beginning of his occupation with the subject which was to bring him fame and enormous fortune.
The Oregon Trail is identical in subject to the Oklahoma City painting but only one-half its size. It could have been painted during Bierstadt's European sojourn from 1867 to 1869 when he took studios in London, Rome, and Paris, showed Rocky Mountain pictures to Queen Victoria, and made pictures of the American West popular in Europe and Britain. The Butler Institute picture, probably painted after the artist's return to America, was bought in Washington, D.C. from the artist and descended in the same family until 1946.
Except for the Harper's Weekly woodcuts and a wood engraving after a Bierstadt drawing of an Overland mail stagecoach in Ludlow's 1870 account of the 1863 trip, there are no images by Bierstadt of any coach or wagon actually en route west. This seems even more curious when we read a description by Bierstadt from 1865: "The wagons are covered with white cloth; each is drawn by four to six pairs of mules or oxen; and the trains of them stretch frequently from one-quarter to one-third of a mile each. As they move along in the distance, they remind one of the caravans described in the Bible and other Eastern books."
The Oregon Trail turns what to Ludlow was a jolly encounter with a colorful band of emigrants into a spectacular allegory of westward expansion. Under a dramatic orange-red sky the travelers trek into the western sun, which tinges the high cliffs as it sets beyond a grove of ancient trees. They pass animal bones and a broken stove which testify to previous unlucky travelers. Native American tepees in the distance are reminders of a constant menace. No matter that by sundown camp should have been made, accuracy of fact is no more a goal here than in any other historical allegory of America's westward migration. This subject first appeared soon after the end of the Civil War when America, with heightened interest in the West, turned its attention to peaceful rather than military matters. The Butler Institute version was painted in 1869, the completion year of the transcontinental railroad which would soon make history of the emigrant wagon. There may have been, even in 1869, on the part of Bierstadt or his patrons, a degree of nostalgia for this particular aspect of the pioneer experience soon to disappear in fact, but to persist in myth for over a century as one of the iconic images of Americas expansion westward.

Oil on paper mounted on canvas, c.1869
19 x 27 inches (48.3 x 68.6 cm)
Private collection
This image is courtesy of the Art Renewal Center

Albert Bierstadt, well known for his Hudson River scenes and his New World landscapes, painted one of the finest pictures in the Simmons Collection, Niagara in 1869.
One of many views of Niagara Falls, considered America's Greatest Wonder, this picture shows the Canadian Falls. It was painted from an imaginary viewpoint, perhaps inspired by a photograph taken by Bierstadt's brother, just below Goat Island, which separates the American from the Canadian Falls.
Bierstadt emphasized aspects of the Falls dear to Romantic painters: the plunging water, dramatic rocks, and the mist from the gorge,
For years, this painting hung in the Magnolia Room, where generations of students ate their lunch and, perhaps, contemplated the energy of the falls and the sheer beauty of the painting.
(From wake Forest University Art Collections at

Among the Sierra Nevada, California
oil on canvas
overall: 72 x 120 1/8 in. (183 x 305 cm)
frame: 96 1/4 x 144 3/8 x 7 1
Smithsonian American Art Museum
2nd Floor, East Wing
(From Smithsonian Institution)

Among the Sierra Nevada, California, bequest of Helen Huntington Hull, granddaughter of William Brown Dinsmore, who acquired the painting in 1873 for "The Locusts," the family estate in Dutchess County, New York
Albert Bierstadt's beautifully crafted paintings played to a hot market in the 1860s for spectacular views of the nation's frontiers. Bierstadt was an immigrant and hardworking entrepreneur who had grown rich pairing his skill as a painter with a talent for self-promotion. He unveiled his canvases as theatrical events, selling tickets and planting news stories—strategies that one critic described as the "vast machinery of advertisement and puffery." A Bierstadt canvas was elaborately framed, installed in a darkened room, and hidden behind luxurious drapes. At the appointed time, the work was revealed to thunderous applause.
This painting was made in London and toured through Europe to St. Petersburg, fueling Europeans' interest in emigration. Buoyed by glowing reviews, Bierstadt then offered the painting to American audiences who could take pride in an American artist's skill and in the natural splendors of their young nation.
(From Smithsonian Institution)

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