Albert Bierstadt was born in Germany but the family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts the following year. He was the middle of three brothers, Charles the oldest and Edward the youngest. Although Albert made crayon sketches as a child, all three brothers became devotees of the new invention, photography. They started a photography business in New Bedford and later moved to New York City. The brothers traveled across New England; Albert made crayon sketches and the others took photographs. In 1853, Albert went to Dusseldorf to study painting with the famous German masters of the time. He returned to Massachusetts in 1853 and became one of the early American landscape painters of the Hudson River School. Until his work became well known, he taught drawing and painting lessons, but in 1857, he was able to concentrate solely on his own work.
Years of study in Dusseldorf paid off. Bierstadt was the first well trained painter of his time. In 1857, his submission of the painting “Lake Lucerne, Switzerland” earned him an honorary membership in the National Academy of Design, the American version of the great European Academies. His paintings brought him to the attention of Frederick W. Landers, who in 1859 engaged him on Lander’s US Land Survey of the Nebraska Territory. During this first trip, and on several future excursions to the west, Bierstadt made hundreds of sketches to use for paintings when he returned home. His brother, Edward, assisted him by photographing scenes which Albert chose.
“Four Indians” (1859), made while the Lander’s survey was at Fort Laramie, is one example. In 1859, the situation between the Western Sioux and the American government was tense. Nevertheless Bierstadt met with and sketched members of the Pawnee, Sioux, Shoshone, and Kansa tribes. His paintings would evidence his increasing respect and esteem for Native Americans, and he would meticulously detail their lives. Bierstadt also amassed a large collection of Indian art and artifacts.
America was engaging in two major issues during the 1850’s and 1860’s. One was the Civil War, in which Bierstadt served in the Union army for several months, eventually paying a substitute to complete his service. The second issue was the United States government’s need to explore their new western territories. For Bierstadt with his talent going west took precedence. After his first paintings from the Lander’s expedition were displayed, other explorers wanted him on the expeditions and he was more than willing. From his childhood, Bierstadt loved the outdoors. A skilled hunter, he preferring painting the animals rather than killing them. He was invited on a buffalo hunt in Kansas in 1863, but he sketched rather than killed.
In 1863, Bierstadt went west with the writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow and spent about seven weeks in the Yosemite Valley. His painting “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peake” (1863) (6’2’’x10’1’’), was first exhibited in 1864. A smart showman as well as an excellent painter, he presented the work covered by a lush curtain in a darkened room, and he sold tickets. Crowds cheered when he dropped the curtain. His practice of displaying his work in this manner would continue for the rest of his career, even when he exhibited his works in Europe. One year later in 1865, the Metropolitan Museum of Art bought the painting for $25,000, one of the highest prices ever paid to a living American artist. This painting influenced Lincoln to sign the 1864 Yosemite Grant Act, making Yosemite Valley and Mariposa Grove protected wilderness areas.
In 1867, Bierstadt married Rosalie Landers, who had divorced her husband Fredrick soon after the 1859 expedition to the Nebraska Territories. The Bierstadt’s traveled to Europe. “Among the Sierra Nevada, California” (1868) (96’’x144’’), was painted in a Rome studio and shown in Berlin and St. Petersburg. It had a private showing for Queen Victoria, before it and the Bierstadt’s returned to American. The ten-foot wide painting is typical of many of Bierstadt’s panoramic landscapes. A rich green meadow spreads across the foreground, a small family of deer come down to the drink from the nearby lake. On the lower left edge of the lake a flock of geese swim in the water and take flight. The lake water is rippling as the geese disturb the surface. In the middle ground is a lush green forest which comes down to lakes edge. The lake is expansive and lit with sunlight streaming down between the clouds. Dramatically lit, the Rocky Mountains surround the lake, and reach high into the sky in several ranges, the tallest snow capped. In the center of the mountains, and the canvas, is a rushing waterfall. On either side the clouds are billowing, some are dark and others in multiple colors as the sun begins to break through revealing a blue sky. He shows the American public a vast unexplored landscape, with dramatic lighting and breath taking views. In many instances Bierstadt’s group were the first Americans to view these magnificent sights.
In 1871, Bierstadt went on his first trip to the Yellowstone region; it became one of his favored sites for painting. The majestic waterfalls, geysers, and other natural wonders were recorded and presented to the public with his usual grandiose style. He became a champion of the area. Despite the fact that the Yellowstone area had been inhabited by Native Americans for 11,000 years, President Grant established Yellowstone National Park in 1872. It was the first of America’s national parks and included parts of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. Bierstadt’s paintings were thought to be one of the influences which led Grant to take this action. In 1888, Bierstadt was a charter member of the Boone and Crockett Club. It was the first group of US citizens formed to conserve and preserve the natural beauty and wildlife of a region. It was commonly recognized that animal life, especially the buffalo, was nearly exterminated by the hunters and poachers in the Yellowstone area. Bierstadt had intimate knowledge of the Indians and sympathy for their inevitable situation. American expansion would not stop.
Among Bierstadt’s last paintings was “The Last of the Buffalo” (1888) (60’’x96’’). In his usual expansive landscape he shows a small group of Indians with spears, not rifles, hunting in a small heard of buffalo. In the left foreground, in recognition of the dead and dying herds, are buffalo skulls and bones. It was intended as both a testimony to the character of Native Americans and a memorial to their way of life.
Bierstadt’s paintings were praised in American and Europe. Many had heard the names Rocky Mountains and Old Faithful, had heard stories about the Indians, but never would see them. It is easy to imagine the impression the ten-foot wide paintings of the American west made on viewers. In 1865, Horace Greely was thought to recommend, “Go west, young man, and grow up with the country.” Some criticized Bierstadt’s paintings as encouraging this idea of “Manifest Destiny.” Some criticized his work as too romantic, too grandiose, and overly lit. Some said that including the Native Americans “marred the impression of solitary grandeur.” The extremely positive response to Bierstadt’s work won the day. He remained popular until near the end of the nineteenth century when newer images and ideas began to replace his work.
Bierstadt continued to travel to Europe and the west and to paint scenes from both worlds. His wife contracted tuberculosis in 1876, and they spent time in Nassau for her health, until her death in 1893. Bierstadt’s enormous output contains canvases from the American east to the west, Europe and the Bahamas. Over 500 paintings of his can be found on-line today, and it is speculated that he might have painted as many as 4000 works. In 1932, Mount Bierstadt and Bierstadt Lake, in Colorado, were named after the artist. The United States Postal Service has issued two stamps in commemoration. The 1998 stamp feature, “The Last Buffalo Hunt” and the 2007 stamp feature the “Valley of the Yosemite” of 1864. On his death in 1902, one Montana newspaper wrote: “His pictures did more than anything else to give the outer world an adequate idea of the scenic glories of the Yellowstone and of the Rocky Mountains… Bierstadt is dead, but his works will live for ages.”
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.