Albert Bierstadt [1830-1902]

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Albert Bierstadt [1830-1902]

  • Albert Bierstadt was the first artist to take as his subject the vastness of the mountains of western North America.
  • In a time when few Americans had ventured west of the Mississippi, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California offered a welcome view of one of the natural wonders on the far side of the continent.
  • After his first trip to the American West in 1859, Albert Bierstadt produced a sequence of landscape paintings that proved so popular with East Coast audiences that he was eager to return to paint more.
  • Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 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.
  • Albert Bierstadt, was born in Solingen, Germany. He was only about two years old when his family moved from Germany to New Bedford in Massachusetts.
  • In 1853, he returned to Germany to study in Dusseldorf, where he refined his technical abilities by painting Alpine landscapes.
  • Four years later in 1857, Albert Bierstadt oil paintings had developed a consistent style which was painstakingly detailed while simultaneously very light infused and became an early example of the American Romantic movement in art. (Thomas Kincaid)
  • The paintings of Bierstadt became very popular until roughly the 1880’s when the now considered “old-fashioned” Romantic style of Albert Bierstadt’s artwork began to fall out of favor.
  • 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.
  • Thomas Cole was part of the Hudson River School. (The Oxbow painting)
  • After he returned to America in 1857, he joined an overland survey expedition which allowed him to travel westward across the country.
  • Along the route, he took countless photographs and made sketches of the majestic mountain ranges and dramatic rock formations which became the studies for his massive canvasses painted in his New York studio.
  • From sketches and oil studies done from nature, he painted in his New York studio the huge, carefully detailed panoramic views of Western scenery that made him one of America's most admired painters in the 1860s and '70s.
  • In December 1857, The Boston Athenaeum bought one of his works, The Portico of Octavia Rome, thus assuring his career.
  • Remember George Washington’s Athenaeum painting that is now on the one-dollar bill.
  • He exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum from 1859 to 1864,
  • at the Brooklyn Art Association from 1861 to 1879, and
  • at the Boston Art Club from 1873 to 1880.
  • A member of the National Academy of Design from 1860 to 1902,
  • he kept a studio in the 10th Street Studio Building, New York City from 1861 to 1879.
  • He was a member of the Century Association from 1862 to 1902.
  • The artist's rugged, romanticized landscapes of the West, painted on a grand scale with an abundance of detail and dramatic lighting, captured the imagination of 19th-century art collectors and their interest catapulted Bierstadt to the top of the American art market.
  • His paintings brought record prices and in his lifetime, Bierstadt enjoyed tremendous success and recognition.
  • Bierstadt became internationally renowned for his beautiful and enormous paintings of the newly accessible American west,
  • His works found their way into public and private collections at staggeringly high prices for his time.
  • His popularity and wealth rose to tremendous heights only to fade as the interest in the Boston School and impressionism turned public taste away from his highly detailed landscapes suffused with golden light.
  • By 1895 he declared himself bankrupt.
  • In 1867 he married, and he and his new bride went to London.
  • There he met with Queen Victoria.
  • His wife, Rosalie, needed to live in a warm climate for health reasons, so the couple lived in Nassau, and Bierstadt began to paint the tropics of Nassau as a result of his stays there.

Bahama Cove

Bahamian View

  • He died suddenly in 1902 and people seemed to forget his work until the 1960's.
  • People became more interested in preserving the national lands of the USA, and his paintings began to be shown again.
  • 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.
  • Prints are available commercially for many.
  • Original paintings themselves do occasionally come up for sale, at ever increasing prices.


  • 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.

Mount Bierstadt

Monte Rosa

Lake Bierstadt

Long’s Peak, Estes Park, Co

  • 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.
  • The onset of the Civil War postponed his trip, but in 1863 Bierstadt set off from Philadelphia to make the transcontinental journey by train, by stagecoach, and on horseback.
  • Born and educated in Germany,
  • Bierstadt was well-acquainted with the beauty of the Alps; but nowhere in Europe, he maintained, “is there scenery whose
  • grandeur can for one moment be held comparable with that of the Sierra Nevada in the Yosemite District.”
  • Looking Down Yosemite Valley supports that nationalistic claim and expresses the artist’s own sense of wonder at his first sight of the majestic mountain landscape.

Looking down Yosemite Valley

  • Bierstadt’s exceptionally large canvas (five by eight feet) and panoramic view down the valley (twenty to thirty miles) were calculated to draw the viewers into the picture to enjoy the spectacle themselves.
  • Some contemporary critics of Bierstadts’ objected to these sensational devices, arguing that Bierstadt’s methods made the picture look more like stage scenery than fine art—but this may in fact have been the desired effect.
  • Bierstadt introduces no actors into his scene—not a single traveler, trapper, settler, or American Indian—
  • At the center of the composition, where we expect to find a dramatic climax to the action, there is only vacant space bathed in a golden light that breaks through the clouds.
  • In Bierstadt’s scenario, the viewer takes the artist’s point of view and discovers that before so magnificent a landscape, human beings dwindle to insignificance.
  • Yosemite had been isolated by its geography until just before mid-century, when the 1848 California Gold Rush brought a surge of non-indigenous people to the Sierras and the valley was “discovered.”
  • Americans were intrigued by the long-hidden valley, and Bierstadt satisfied their curiosity by documenting its major landmarks—the exposed granite block of El Capitán on the north side (the right of the canvas), opposite the spire of Sentinel Rock and masses of Cathedral Rocks—yet he exaggerates even their imposing proportions.
  • The golden haze that Bierstadt used to soften the edges of the magnificent cliffs may be meant to excuse his creative manipulation of the truth.
  • As one San Francisco critic observed in 1865, “It looks as if it was painted in an El Dorado, in a distant land of gold; heard of in song and story; dreamed of but never seen.”
  • Bierstadt possessed an uncanny understanding of what Americans in his time wanted to believe was waiting for them on the western frontier:
  • A Garden of Eden blessed by God, untouched by Civil War, and holding the promise of a new beginning.
  • His romantic paintings embody the collective hope that a remote landscape could heal a nation’s wounds.
  • What national event was America recovering from in 1865, when this scene was painted?
  • A scene like this offered hope to Americans.
  • Not only was it peaceful to look at, but it also reminded them of the Western frontier, spacious, beautiful country waiting to be settled.
  • Many saw the West as the promise of a new beginning.
  • The preservationist (and Sierra Club founder) John Muir, Bierstadt’s near-contemporary, affirmed the idea that the Yosemite Valley could refresh the spirit:
  • “The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy,” he promised prospective tourists, “while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”
  • Did anyone see the Ken Burns special on the National Parks?
  • Over the Christmas holidays, it would be a wonderful series to check out from the library.
  • Looking Down Yosemite Valley would have been underway in Bierstadt’s New York studio in 1864, when Abraham Lincoln set the territory aside as a state park.
  • This was the first time the federal government had saved a tract of scenic land from development.
  • When the Transcontinental Railroad was
  • completed five years later, the region was flooded with tourists who wanted to see for themselves the wondrous places they knew only from paintings and photographs.
  • Returning to Yosemite in 1872, Bierstadt lamented the loss of the unspoiled wilderness he had portrayed only a few years earlier.

Let’s take a closer look….

  • Where do you see trees reflected in water?
  • Describe the texture of the rocks.
  • Write three or four words that you think of when they first see this painting.
  • If a person were standing in the middle of this scene, about how large would he or she seem?
  • Compare a six-foot tall person to one of the trees; imagine how this person would feel in comparison to these mountains.
  • How might he or she describe this scene?
  • How has Bierstadt created an illusion of great distance or depth?
  • What do you see first when you look at this painting?
  • How does this light add to the drama of this scene?

Yosemite Valley

  • Cathedral Spires and Sentinel Rock are on the left and El Capitán is on the right.
  • Compare photographs of Yosemite Valley with Bierstadt’s painting to understand how he exaggerated the size of the rock formations.
  • Consider if the sun in the painting is rising or setting.
  • Bierstadt painted some of the rock formations in this painting taller than they really were.
  • Do you think this exaggeration was dishonest?
  • Explain why you do or do not believe that it is all right for an artist to exaggerate features in a scene like this.
  • In addition to exaggerating the size of the rocks, how else did Bierstadt make the West seem even grander than it was?
  • Explain the role Bierstadt’s paintings played in the development of tourism to the West.
  • When people in the East saw Bierstadt’s grand interpretation of western scenery, they wanted to see it for themselves.
  • Within a few years, with the introduction of the railroad into this area, great numbers of tourists were able to visit Yosemite.

A View from Sacramento

Sierra Nevada in California

Seal Rock

Essay Question 1

  • How did Albert Bierstadt’s painting influence eastern American’s in the last half of the 19th century?
  • Include what had happened in the country that the nation was recovering from as well as comment on his art (his style and the emotion that it produced).

Essay Question 2

  • Explain the role Bierstadt’s paintings played in the development of tourism to the West.
  • Also explain the transportation advancements that were going on in the country at that time.

Essay Question 3

  • Bierstadt painted some of the rock formations in this painting taller than they really were. Do you think this exaggeration was dishonest?
  • Explain why you do or do not believe that it is all right for an artist to exaggerate features in a scene like this.

Essay Question 4

  • In addition to exaggerating the size of the rocks, how else did Bierstadt make the West seem even grander than it was?

Essay Question 5

  • Explain the role Bierstadt’s paintings played in the development of tourism to the West.

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