Inspired by the untamed wilderness, Bierstadt moved to the United States to continue his studies in art. He eventually traveled out West, where he painted grand landscapes.
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Few artists have explored and painted the landscapes of North America, the Caribbean and Europe as extensively as Albert Bierstadt. Bierstadt would later use the rapid yet detailed sketches created during his travels as sources of inspiration for his monumental landscape paintings. Today, paralleling his own travel experiences, Bierstadt’s paintings can be found in collections ranging geographically from Europe to California and even the U.S. Capitol.
Born in Solingen, Germany, near Düsseldorf, on January 7, 1830, Bierstadt was the fourth son of Christina M. Tillmans and Henry Bierstadt. At the age of two, Albert and his family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. No records exist of any formal art training in his youth, and it is widely believed that he was self-taught during his formative years. By the age of 20, he advertised himself as a skilled instructor of monochromatic painting. As he was considered an amateur artist, his fee of three dollars per day was extremely self-assured. Doubling as an instructor, he began to exhibit his first works in the small art circles of New Bedford.
Realizing that his chances for a successful career as an artist were limited in New Bedford, the young painter traveled to Düsseldorf to further his art education. His mother’s cousin, Johann Hasenclever—a leading painter, had promised to familiarize Bierstadt with the style of the renowned Düsseldorf Academy. Upon arrival, Bierstadt learned of Hasenclever’s death, yet he continued in his quest to learn the techniques of the area’s influential painters. The Düsseldorf School encouraged the use of dramatic lighting and meticulous brushstrokes which together, added a polished finish to paintings. Throughout his career, Bierstadt stayed true to this style, even when the buying public lost interest in his work.
In Germany, Bierstadt met and shared a studio with the American painter, Worthington Whittredge. Together, the two artists traveled the European continent. It was the first of many trips to Europe during his lifetime. After returning to the United States, he used sketches made during his trips throughout Switzerland to create Lake Lucerne (1858). This was his first painting submitted to the National Academy of Design in New York and was shown in their exhibition of that year. Despite lukewarm criticism, he was elected a full Academician of the National Academy of Design in 1860 at the age of 30.
In 1859, he joined a road-improvement expedition led by Colonel Frederick W. Lander, and traveled West in the company of several other artists, including F.S. Frost. Prior to his departure, he announced on January 17, 1859 in The New Bedford Daily Mercury that his intentions in traveling west were to “study the scenery of that wild region, and the picturesque facts of Indian life, with reference to a series of large pictures.” Captivated by the West, he ventured there numerous times throughout his life and settled in California for two years.
Inspired by this experience and with loads of sketches and stereographs in tow, Albert the traveler returned to New York to create his first panoramic landscape of the American West. In 1864, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak was shown at the New York City Sanitary Fair and prompted immediate, international fame for the 34-year-old painter. This event would mark the beginning of his successful, yet short-lived career. In the following years, Bierstadt commanded remarkable sums for his paintings. A stunning $25,000 was paid for The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak. His audiences never refused to pay, and neither did the U.S. government, who commissioned two paintings for the U.S. Capitol.
In the peak of his career, Bierstadt built his mansion, Malkastan, on the Hudson River. In 1866, he married Rosalie Osborne Ludlow, the divorced wife of his friend and writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow. Together, the couple made numerous trips to Europe and traveled to California on the newly accessible Transcontinental Railroad. His wife later became ill with tuberculosis which further prompted the couple to travel to the Bahamas.
By the 1880s, both the artist’s career and life began to fall apart. In 1882, Malkastan burned with many of his favorite paintings still inside. After a painful struggle, his wife died in 1893. Although he found comfort in his second wife, Mary Hicks Stewart, he was unable to revive his career. The increasing acceptance of French Impressionism gradually cast a shadow over the efforts of academic realists like Bierstadt. He was quickly forgotten by an audience that had embraced him as a national treasure. He filed bankruptcy in 1895, and died, somewhat forgotten, in New York City in 1902 at the age of 72.
II. AN ANALYSIS OF THE ARTIST'S WORK
Albert Bierstadt is credited as the first painter to truly capture the vastness and rusticity of the American landscape. The monumental size of many of his canvases reflects the nature of the undeveloped lands of the United States that he visited. Each of Bierstadt’s careful brushstrokes works to express the magnificence of the untainted American wilderness which would become a unique part of America’s history.
In his early years as an artist, Bierstadt struggled to gain positive support from critics and even his artist friends. Worthington Whittredge noted that Bierstadt’s early works “had nothing in them to recommend [him] as a painter. They were in fact absolutely bad.” This harsh criticism may have been due to the fact that Bierstadt was largely self-taught.
Bierstadt’s later success as an artist can be said to have developed in two different stages. It was not until Bierstadt traveled to Düsseldorf in 1853 that his approach to painting would become more developed. As a native of Germany himself, Bierstadt admired the work of the Düsseldorf Academy’s artists and sought to learn their distinct, naturalistic style and precise handling of the brush. Secondly, his extensive touring of Europe, North America, and the Bahamas allowed him to study nature firsthand. Together, these factors were part of what made Bierstadt a skilled landscape painter at a moment in history when the wilderness of America symbolized specific values and beliefs.
As art historian Matthew Baigell argues in his epic monograph, Albert Bierstadt, the artist’s paintings of the Rocky Mountains, Yosemite and Indian camps of the Midwest touched an audience who were sympathetic to American Transcendentalism. In the first half of the 19th century, America witnessed the publication of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s tracts on Transcendentalism and his essay Thoughts on Art (1841). A major tenant of Transcendentalism was the belief that if nature was left alone by man, then man could become more easily familiar with God.
American painters of the early 19th century shared the same philosophy. Visualizing the tracts of Emerson, the artists of the Hudson River School believed that art could be a medium of spiritual and moral change. American artists like Thomas Cole and Frederick Church loosened their ties with European traditions and frequently sketched from nature. Although much younger than the first members of the Hudson River School, Bierstadt is often grouped under this stylistic rubric.
Nevertheless, unlike the other members of the Hudson River School, Bierstadt’s work also displayed an interest in European Romanticism. In Bierstadt’s paintings, the wilderness of the Unites States is transformed into a theatrical stage. However, it is not the occasional figures in the landscapes of Bierstadt’s paintings that capture the viewer’s interest. Rather, it is his “backdrops” of mountainous peaks, gushing waterfalls, and seemingly endless valleys that leave the viewer truly enchanted with the sublime or awe-inspiring nature of America’s frontier.
Much of Bierstadt’s oeuvre speaks to a time lost, when the West and California were uncharted territory and when individuals began to take hold of the beliefs of Manifest Destiny. Bierstadt’s paintings invited the viewer to explore and settle the West. As individuals were creating the history of a young country, Bierstadt was documenting it with a naturalistic eye that never ceased to look away even when his painterly style began to fall out of fashion.
1830 Born in Solingen, Germany to Christina M. Tillmans and Henry Bierstadt
1832 Family immigrates to New Bedford, MA
1850 Advertises himself as an instructor of monochromatic painting
1853 Travels to Düsseldorf and shares a studio with painter Worthington Whittredge
1856 Departs Düsseldorf and tours Germany, Switzerland, and Italy
1857 Returns to New England and tours the coast
1858 First “official” exhibition at National Academy of Design in New York, NY
1859 Travels west with an expedition led by Colonel Frederick W. Lander. Moves to New York, NY
1860 Tours the White Mountain region with his brothers and photographers, Charles and Edward
1861 Visits Union troops on the Potomac with Emanuel Leutze
1863 Travels west and tours Yosemite Valley, Oregon and Columbia River with author Fitz Hugh Ludlow
1864 The Rocky Mountains is shown at the New York City Sanitary Fair and prompts immediate popularity
1865 Builds mansion, Malkastan, in Irvington, NY on the Hudson
1866 Marries Rosalie Osborne Ludlow, divorced wife of Fitz Hugh Ludlow
1867 Presented to Queen Victoria and awarded Legion of Honor by Napoleon III
1870 Visits Europe
1871 Travels to California for a two-year stay and meets photographer Eadweard Muybridge
1876 Tours Canada, Colorado, Alaska, and stays in White House as guest of President Hayes
1877 Travels to the Bahamas due to wife’s failing health
1878 A second and final painting is purchased by the U.S. government.
1881 First trip to Yellowstone area
1882 Fire destroys Malkastan
1886 Paintings are rejected form the Paris Salon and the World’s Columbian Exposition
1893 Rosalie Bierstadt dies
1894 Marries second wife, Mary Hicks Stewart
1895 Files bankruptcy
1902 Dies in New York, NY
Amon Carter Museum, Houston, TX
Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, NY
Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Birmingham Museum of Art, AL
Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, OH
Detroit Institute of Arts, Detroit, MI
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, San Francisco, CA
Hirshborn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.
Hyde Collection Art Museum, Glen Falls, NY
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY
Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis, MN
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX
National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, OK
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
New York Historical Society, New York, NY
North Carolina Museum of Art, NC
Philbrook Museum of Art, OK
Portland Art Museum, OR
Rockwell Museum of Western Art, Corning, NY
Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Stark Museum of Art, TX
Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, Madrid, Spain
U.S. Capital Art Collection, Washington, D.C.
Worcester Art Museum, MA
Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
1858-88 National Academy of Design, New York, NY
1858 New Bedford Art Exhibition, New Bedford, MA
1859-67 Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, PA
1859-64 Boston Athenaeum, Boston, MA
1861-81 Brooklyn Art Association, Brooklyn, NY
1864 New York Sanitary Exhibition
1867 Cross of Legion of Honor, France
1869, 1875, 1879, 1880, 1882, 1889 Paris Salon, Paris, France
1869, 1872 Degrees of Order of St. Stanislaus, Russia
1873, 1876, 1880 Boston Art Club, Boston, MA
1886 Imperial Order of Medjidi, Turkey
1904 Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL
1963, 1964 Florence Lewison Gallery, New York, NY
1964 Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Santa Barbara, CA
1972 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX
1972 Old Dartmouth Historical Society
1972 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, NY
1972 M. Knoedler and Co., Inc., New York, NY
1982 David and Langdale Company, Inc. New York, NY
1983 Alexander Gallery, New York, NY
1986 Tinken Art Gallery, San Diego, CA
2002 Montclair Art Museum, NJ
American Geographical Society
Boston Art Club
Musical Art Society
National Institute of Arts and Letters
San Francisco Art Association
Union League Club
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