Recognized as the foremost painter of the American frontier during the nineteenth-century, Albert Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Germany, in 1830. At the age of two, he and his family immigrated to the United States, settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Nothing is known of his early art training; however, he might possibly have been influenced by local landscape painters and daguerreotypists. By the time he was twenty, he was supporting himself by teaching “monochromatic” painting and his work was beginning to attract the attention of New Bedford collectors.
In 1853, Bierstadt traveled to Düsseldorf in order to broaden his art education. It was there that he associated with such American artists as Worthington Whittredge and Carl Wumar, all of whom frequently gathered in the studio of the German-American history painter, Emanuel Leutze. During this period, he was introduced to the work of Carl Friedrich Lessing and Andreas Aachenbach, contemporary German painters widely admired for their heroic, highly finished landscape compositions. Bierstadt quickly absorbed these stylistic conventions, eventually becoming the leading American representative of the Düsseldorf style.
While abroad, Bierstadt traveled along the Rhine, in the Alps and in Italy, often in the company of Whittredge, Sanford Gifford and William Stanley Haseltine. He returned to New Bedford in the autumn of 1857. In the following year, he made the first of his many contributions to the annual exhibitions of the National Academy of Design.
In April of 1859, he joined the expedition along the Overland Trail, led by Colonel Frederick W. Lander, a trip that would soon give rise to the most productive and important phase of his career. Armed with sketches and stereographs, he returned to New York City in the autumn of 1859, establishing his studio in the Tenth Street Building. There he produced the first of the panoramic western landscapes that established his reputation on an international level and, during the mid-1860s, made him a rival of Frederick Church for the position of America’s preeminent painter.
Indeed, because much of the continent remained still relatively unexplored at that time, Bierstadt’s monumental renderings of stately mountains and cascading waterfalls created romantic visions of wanderlust in the minds of Easterners. His first public exhibition of these works in 1860 was a resounding success. Many critics 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. As pointed out by Barbara Novak, such works represent the attitude of the “transcendental mind,” one in which “all matter was an extension of God.” 1
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. He made a second trip to the West in 1863 which was followed by another visit to Europe in 1867. In 1871, he moved to California where he played an active role in the art life of San Francisco. In 1873, he returned to New York.
During the 1870s, Bierstadt executed a mural for the U.S. Capitol (1875) and in conjunction with the declining health of his wife, made the first of many trips to the Bahamas. He made a third trip to Europe in 1883. During 1889, he painted in both Alaska and British Columbia. He continued to produce landscapes throughout the 1890s. He also became involved in the promotion of various inventions, including his own designs for the improvement of railway cars.
Albert Bierstadt died in New York City in 1902. Although his reputation during the 1890s suffered slightly from the attraction for French art, his impact upon the American landscape tradition of the nineteenth century remains strong. His large-scale, panoramic landscapes, with their dramatic, almost sublime, light effects, coupled with the meticulous rendering of details, reflect the influences of both the contemporary landscape school of Düsseldorf as well as the native Hudson River School aesthetic. His works can be found in major public and private collections throughout North America and Europe, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Wadsworth Atheneum, and the National Gallery of Canada.
The preceding essay was written by Matthew Baigell