Albert Bierstadt's work is hard to resist. Even the most jaded sophisticate can't help but catch a breath before such amazing painted spectacles as Sunset in Yosemite Valley
or The Sierra Nevadas
Albert Bierstadt, Sunset in Yosemite Valley, circa 1868
Albert Bierstadt, The Sierra Nevadas, 1871 - 1873
Albert Bierstadt is not the greatest artist the USA ever produced. But, he was among America's most spectacular landscape painters, and even in certain moments among the finest. He was a true believing Romantic born way too late. His work at its best and at its worst is rooted in a very Romantic idea of personal communion with the land and its larger spirit; the artist's task is to somehow make visible an invisible spiritual bond between people and the land.
Bierstadt was born in 1830 in a small town outside Dusseldorf. His parents brought him to the USA when he was 2. He grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He returned to Dusseldorf to study art there along with a number of other American painters. Bierstadt lived and worked in an age that rejected Romanticism in favor of a more hard-headed realism. In Europe, Romanticism died with the events of 1848. In the USA, it died in the carnage of the Civil War. Bierstadt had a remarkable run of success with the general public and with collectors. From the middle of the Civil War to about the 1880s, he was a celebrity, a household name. He was not so popular with the critics (though European critics such as Theophile Gautier admired his work). In the last 20 years of his life, anachronism finally caught up with him in a series of humiliating rejections. Bierstadt died alone and almost forgotten in 1902.
Bierstadt's paintings certainly made me catch my breath in 1972 when I was 14 years old. I remember going to Fort Worth to see a major exhibit of his work (probably the first in decades) at what was then the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, now the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. In 1972, the museum was about half the size that it is now. Bierstadt's paintings filled the museum, and some were so large that my father was convinced that they had to remove the front windows to get them into the central gallery. We all loved the show. I wanted to do something like that. I never imagined that painting could have that kind of power to dazzle and to awe. Bierstadt didn't exactly launch my ambition to be an artist, but he gave it real charge. I still remember that show, and I have the original catalog, to this day.
Since then, I wonder, did our travels as a family through Colorado and the West condition us to see Bierstadt's work, or did Bierstadt condition the way we saw the Western landscapes afterward? I think the answer is yes. My father alternately lived and traveled in Colorado since the late 1940s. We spent summers there since I was an infant. The mountain scenery made all the heat, monotony, bad food, illness, and car trouble of driving for 2 days through Texas worth it all. We brought a lot of travel experience to the Amon Carter Museum that Sunday in 1972. We never forgot Albert Bierstadt's work in our later travels west. We saw his work in every mountain thunderstorm, valley, peak, and sunset.
Yours Truly playing with my brother Brian and my dad in a summer snow drift
south of Aspen, Colorado, July, 1962
How true to life are these huge spectacles really? Not very, and the critics in Bierstadt's day called him out on this. A critic in Watson's Weekly Journal
in 1866 wrote about a painting Bierstadt made of a high peak in Colorado:
The whole science of geology cries out against him. Away above the clouds, near the top of the picture, the observer will observe two pyramidal shapes. By further consultation with the index sheet, the observer will ascertain that these two things are the two "spurs" of Mount Rosalie. Now, let him work out a problem in arithmetic: The hills over which he looks, as we are told, are three thousand feet high; right over the hills tower huge masses of clouds which certainly carry the ey up to ten or twelve thousand feet higher; above these... the two "spurs"; what is the height of Mount Rosalie? Answer: approximately ten thousand miles or so. Impossible
Critics worked hard in those days, actually doing the math. But the much more hard-headed post Civil War USA of 1866 had little patience for "artistic license" or exaggeration for effect. Bierstadt's work alienated the critics for the same reason that it appealed to the public. Bierstadt's landscapes have a passionately religious quality behind all the bombast. They appealed directly to popular conceptions of the USA as a kind of divinely chosen nation, as a nation with a messianic mission. In Bierstadt's work, the mountain storms, the fiery sunsets, the prodigiously tall trees, are the stuff of God, and the Old Testament God specifically. The setting sun before the pioneers on the Oregon Trail is God in the Pillar of Fire leading His Chosen to the Promised Land.
Albert Bierstadt, The Oregon Trail
Every peak in Bierstadt's work is the Mount Sinai of Moses, only much taller. These were sentiments that predated the Civil War, and though they perished among many thoughtful people in the carnage of the war, among others, the experience of the Civil War only deepened those associations. For those who ran the newly industrialized USA in the wake of the War, nature meant resources to be opened up and exploited. Tough and tough minded men saw the wilderness as something to be opened up and conquered, to be exploited and civilized, to be turned under the plow and criss-crossed with railroads. They were aided and abetted by less tough minded men who proclaimed the doctrine of "Manifest Destiny," that this vast Western land was somehow pre-destined by God for the American white man ( I doubt that Cornelius Vanderbilt or Jay Gould could have cared less about Manifest Destiny; they were interested in making money). Bierstadt's paintings played their role in this campaign of conquest in the later 19th century.
Albert Bierstadt, Donner Lake from the Summit. 1873
Bierstadt painted this magnificent painting of Donner Pass with Donner Lake in San Francisco, commissioned by Central Pacific Rail magnate Collis P. Huntington. Bierstadt's painting shows the highest point on Huntington's railroad as it crosses Donner Pass in the Sierras. You can see the railroad with its snow shelters on the right. Today, Amtrak follows that same route over the pass, and also through snow shelters (in winter, snowfall on Donner Pass is measured by the yard).
In the center of the picture is Donner Lake named for the ill-fated Donner Party who by its shores in 1846 lost 36 of their members to starvation and exposure; and the survivors ate the dead. In the foreground is a stand of California sequoias (in fact there are none on the Pass at that altitude). We are looking east from the summit at the rising sun over a luminous sea of morning fog rising from the lake and the valley below.
This painting is a kind of memorial picture to the dead of the Donner Party, and by extension to all those who perished trying to extend civilization through the Sierra Nevada wilderness. The painting is filled with death and resurrection imagery; the rising sun and the luminous sky in the upper half of the picture suggest Heaven or some kind of transcendence. The sequoias, the oldest living things that anyone knew about at the time, bear witness to events and to the changes being wrought on this ancient place. Next to that stand are the remains of trees felled by storm or fire. Other smaller trees near them claim succession.
Albert Bierstadt was a hard working artist in a hard working century. His fellow American at Dusseldorf, Worthington Whiteridge, gives us a look at the work habits of the young Bierstadt while still a student:
After working in my studio for a few months ... he fitted up a paint box, stool, and umbrella which he put with a few pieces of clothing into a large knapsack, and shouldering it one cold April morning, he started off to try his luck among the Westphalian peasants where he expected to work. He remained away without a word until late autumn when he returned loaded down with innumerable studies of all sorts....It was a remarkable summer's work for anybody to do, and for one who had little or no instruction it was simply marvelous. He set to work in my studio immediately on large canvases composing and putting together parts of studies he had made, and worked with an industry which left no daylight to go to waste.
Bierstadt sent those paintings home to New Bedford as soon as they were finished, and the once penniless student soon had pockets full of cash from sales of his work.
This was the pattern for the whole course of Bierstadt's life. He was an indefatigable and prolific artist who produced around 5000 paintings, sketches, and drawings over the course of his long life. He traveled extensively over the years; and remember that travel was not nearly as easy a matter then as it is today. He traveled in Europe many times. He journeyed from Britain to France and Germany down to Italy all the way south to Naples. He did numerous paintings on his travels, but he is best remembered for his travels to the place he loved best, the American west.
Traveling out west was far more challenging than traveling through Europe. There were no roads, and before the 1870s, no reliable maps. Bierstadt made his first trips to the west in 1859 and 1863, before the construction of the Trans-Continental Railroad. On these first 2 trips, he attached himself to survey expeditions sent out to explore and map the vast new territories acquired in the wake of the Mexican War from 1846 to 1849. He set out with painting equipment and a letter of introduction from the War Department (today the Defense Department) for the commanders of military outposts like Fort Laramie or Fort Union. On his first trip in 1859, Bierstadt attached himself to the large wagon train of the Lander expedition headed up the Platte River into what is now Wyoming. This trip was a life-changing experience for Bierstadt. He fell in love with the west and with Rosalie, the wife of the expedition leader Colonel Frederick William Lander. Bierstadt married her after Lander divorced her (I read between the lines of the biographical accounts that there was an affair). His second trip in 1863 took him to California and up the Pacific coast to what is now Washington state. On these trips, he braved many hardships: the elements; the native peoples were not always friendly (although some like the Shoshones were very friendly to the artist); dangerous traveling conditions, and illness. On an expedition to Oregon, Bierstadt had to nurse a traveling companion through pneumonia (he survived). Bierstadt sometimes was the first artist to see and record a lot of the prodigies of western scenery, especially Yosemite (Thomas Moran was the first to see and record Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon).
Bierstadt made a number of paintings from studies made on these trips. One of his first was a scene in the Wind River country of Wyoming.
Albert Bierstadt, The Wind River Country, 1859
This painting shows a view of the distant Wind River mountains over a broad river valley. Before what appear to be large ancient oak trees, a grizzly bear devours an antelope, a detail recovered in the mid 1960s after a squeamish collector had it painted out by another artist.
Bierstadt uses the painting language he learned in Dusseldorf, a form language for European landscapes and maybe for the Hudson Valley in North America to paint this early scene from the west. He's struggling a little to adapt that form sense to the wide open spaces, the vast distances, and the sharply varying climes of the west. This painting sets up a premise that will underlie almost all of Bierstadt's western landscapes, that we are looking at a primordial North America before the arrival of Europeans and "civilization." There are no visible signs of any human habitation in this or in many other western landscapes Bierstadt painted. The human beings who appear most frequently in his landscapes are North America's original inhabitants in their encampments.
Bierstadt's first great success was a large painting he made in New York, in his studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, designed by Richard Morris Hunt, and the first such building in the USA designed for the needs of artists.
The Tenth Street Studio Building, New York
Bierstadt had many distinguished neighbors in this building. Among them, another master of large spectacular landscapes (and sometime rival) Frederick Edwin Church. In this building, just yards from each other, Bierstadt and Church painted rival paintings that would be displayed together in 1864 at the New York Metropolitan Fair put on by the Sanitary Commission at the height of the Civil War. The 2 paintings still hang opposite each other in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Both were created out of arduous expeditions to explore uncharted territory. In the case of Church, his painting The Heart of the Andes
came out of extensive travels in the Andes mountains in Colombia and Ecuador. Bierstadt's painting The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak
came directly out of his first trip out west with the Lander Survey expedition.
Frederick Edwin Church, The Heart of the Andes, 1859
Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, 1863
Both paintings are enormous, about 10 feet long and around 5 feet high. Both paintings were first exhibited separately in the Tenth Street Studio Building in single painting shows charging 25 cents a head to look. Both were huge successes with the public attracting crowds of amazed viewers. Bierstadt was a shameless and shrewd self-promoter having a pamphlet made up and printed with engravings of the painting. He painted the huge picture with public exhibition halls, and wealthy collectors with large homes, in mind. A British railroad magnate James McHenry bought the painting for the once princely sum of $25,000.
Both Church's and Bierstadt's paintings are studio concoctions based on volumes of expedition studies. Both artists exaggerate, but perhaps Bierstadt exaggerates a little more.
Here is the real Lander's Peak at 10, 456 feet high in Wyoming.
It is a steep peak, but not quite the soaring Everest that Bierstadt painted back in New York. Critics did indeed call him out on this, but the public didn't seem to care.
The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak
begins a formula which Bierstadt would repeat in paintings throughout his life: The huge peak soaring high into the clouds and sky; the waterfall in the distance spilling into a broad lake; huge trees and a foreground usually in shadow. This is Bierstadt's most populated western landscape. A peaceful Shoshone encampment with a lot of people and horses occupies the foreground; this too is based on numerous studies of the Shoshone with their gear and clothes.
Both paintings are imperial visions exhibited at the height of the Civil War (the younger Bierstadt was drafted, but paid the notorious $300 fee to get an exemption and a substitute). Both paintings speak to expansionist ambitions of the war torn and newly industrialized USA. Church appealed to the project to expand south into the tropics and South America (an ambition of the Confederate and slave owning states; these states made an abortive invasion of Cuba before the Civil War, and a successful conquest of Nicaragua). Bierstadt spoke to the yearning to move westward (probably a more popular appeal to so many people in crowded riot-torn New York eager to make a new start under the Homestead Act of 1862). Both paintings try to portray these destinations as Eden, as the Promised Land, predestined by the Calvinist God for the occupation of white Americans.
Bierstadt's work is rooted in German Romantic ideas about spiritual communion between God and the individual in moments of rapturous exhilaration in the contemplation of nature. Yet, Bierstadt's landscapes are very far in spirit from the the very spare landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich
, a devout Lutheran with a mystical streak. Bierstadt's work is much closer in spirit to the paintings of John Martin,
the English painter of sweeping Old Testament spectacles and visions of Apocalyptic wrath. It is not the Transcendentalist World Spirit (of Hudson River School artists like Asher B. Durand
), or the Holy Spirit (in Friedrich's paintings
), but the mighty and mysterious Jehovah of the Old Testament that inspires Bierstadt's paintings.
Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Rockies, 1886
I love this painting in the Brooklyn Museum in a way that I could never love Cezanne, as great an artist as he was. Bierstadt pulls out all the stops in this painting; mighty rocks and trees, the usual lake, soaring mountain peaks wreathed in immense, dark, and threatening clouds. I've seen some frightening storm clouds in my day, but I've never seen anything so scary as that almost lunar blue glimpse of mountain through a pitch black storm cloud near the center of Bierstadt's huge painting. The theatrical spot lighting is beautifully done throughout the picture. It is a spell-binding drama of mighty forces of weather and geology, each in massive upheaval, before our eyes. Huge fallen and broken trees and rock on the right foreground reveal the power of the forces playing out in front of us. A tiny group of native hunters runs back toward an encampment along a river in the middle distance. These give scale to the immense drama; the natives are small and meaningless as gnats to swept away by these mighty forces; perhaps an imperial message, or maybe a subtle expression of anxiety about the industrial forces that would soon harness these powers to profit, and destroy the very idea of wilderness. Perhaps this is the terrible force of Manifest Destiny itself sweeping all before it, and Bierstadt's feelings are really more ambivalent than triumphant.
Bierstadt's many oil studies from his trips out west are amazingly fresh and realistic pieces of quick study, probably some of his best work.
Here is a photograph by the great pioneer of motion photography, Eadward Muybridge, of Bierstadt making an oil sketch during a council of the Mariposa Indians near Yosemite Valley in California in 1871. This was scanned from my copy of the 1972 catalog of the Bierstadt Exhibit.
And here is the oil sketch he was working on in the photograph above:
Albert Bierstadt, Indians in Council, 1871
Albert Bierstadt, The Sierras at Sunrise, 1872
Albert Bierstadt, Deer and Mountains
Albert Bierstadt, Mountain (Long's Peak, Colorado?)
Albert Bierstadt, Encampment with Long's Peak, Colorado
Albert Bierstadt, Indians Near Fort Laramie
Albert Bierstadt, Cloud Study
These studies are so striking that I am tempted to conclude that Bierstadt frequently gilded his lilies back in his studio in New York. Sometimes his studio concoctions can be bombastic and repetitive, especially compared to his sketches.
Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountain Study
Compare this study from life made high up in the actual Rocky Mountains with what he could cook up in his studio.
Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, 1866
While this painting has its moments, it comes perilously close to schlock. Bierstadt seems to assemble a lot of market tested passages to a painting that ultimately rings false.
Yes, he exaggerated and invented in his studio pictures, but did they all ring false or become repetitive? Not necessarily. Here is what he made of Long's Peak in Colorado (in the middle of what is today Rocky Mountain National Park) as viewed from Estes Park.
Here is the actual study he made on the site:
And here is the painting he made in his studio out of that study and many others:
Albert Bierstadt, Long's Peak, 1877
The foreground trees change from basic ponderosa pines to something more like California redwoods. The foreground slope becomes steeper and the river falls back into the distance. Clouds now wreath a steeper and seemingly higher (but still recognizable) Long's Peak.
Another more extreme example of Bierstadt's exaggeration and invention, Mount Corcoran in the Sierra Nevadas of California.
Here is the actual Mount Corcoran:
And here is Bierstadt's painting of Mount Corcoran:
Albert Bierstadt, Mount Corcoran, circa 1876 - 1877
There is only the most vague resemblance to the actual mountain in this picture put together out of Bierstadt's formula -- lake, distant rocky waterfall, sunlit peak wreathed in darkening clouds, high trees in the foreground; in this case, redwoods --but, do we really care? Is that really a problem for us? Cezanne remade Mont Saint Victoire every time he painted it. Why shouldn't Bierstadt be allowed the liberty to remake Mount Corcoran?
Travelers to Rome from England, France, and Germany in the late 18th and early 19th centuries who knew the city only from Piranesi's prints
were usually disappointed when they saw that the actual city
was not quite as theatrical as Piranesi's portrayals.
I don't remember ever feeling disappointed that the Colorado Rockies, even in extreme weather, did not look anything like a Bierstadt studio painting. I don't remember anyone in my family looking at a storm sweeping across the South Park or new snow falling on Uncompaghre Peak expressing any dissatisfaction with Bierstadt's work. On the contrary, "just like in a Bierstadt," they usually exclaimed.
Bierstadt at the height of his career was a celebrity. He was very rich with a couple of huge homes where he and his wife Rosalie entertained lavishly. Bierstadt was personally acquainted with Jim Bridger, the famous scout, and with such notables as Brigham Young, Theodore Roosevelt, and Queen Victoria. German princes regularly gave him decorations and titles. He was inducted into the Legion d'Honneur in France.
All that began to change beginning in 1880. His wife contracted tuberculosis that year. She died in 1893.
In 1889, Bierstadt suffered a disastrous humiliation because of one ambitious painting, The Last of the Buffalo.
Albert Bierstadt, The Last of the Buffalo, 1889
Bierstadt's fame and fortune were already in a steady decline when he painted this huge and ambitious work for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris (the same exhibition that featured the Eiffel Tower, and commemorated the centennial of the French Revolution). The jury of the fine arts exhibit at the Exposition rejected Bierstadt's painting in a unanimous vote. Bierstadt never recovered from that blow, and spent the rest of his life trying and failing to restore his former reputation.
How bad is the painting really? It isn't bad at all. Bierstadt, as always, superbly composes the lights and darks across the canvas. The spectacle of mighty herds of buffalo sweeping across the plains in the middle distance is really impressive. The transition in scale and distance from foreground to middle ground to far-away mountain ranges is handled beautifully as usual. The group of the buffalo and the spear wielding horseback warrior in the dramatic center of the foreground is beautifully composed and worthy of the great sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye,
a master human and animal conflict in the mid 19th century.
So what happened?
Bierstadt was always something of an anachronism, and by 1889, time and history caught up with him. The Exposition jury rejected his painting because it was so old fashioned. And they were right. In 1889, Impressionism was already 15 years old. American collectors were collecting French Impressionist paintings. American artists like Childe Hassam were trying to adapt Impressionism to American experience. Vincent Van Gogh painted The Starry Night that year. Artists like Winslow Homer looked a nature with very unsentimental eyes, and landscapists like George Inness found novel ways to connect with the spiritual.
By 1889, the scene that Bierstadt shows in his painting of warriors hunting buffalo with spears on horseback out of vast herds was over by many decades. He shows us not the last of the buffalo, picked off by the rifles of white hunters with mounds of their bones dotting the plains, but his abiding vision of primordial North America before the arrival of white settlers in large numbers. Bierstadt shows us something that was already long past. The Massacre at Wounded Knee that effectively ended the long wars of conquest with the native peoples happened in 1890, the year after this painting was completed. Bierstadt's west was over, and so was his career.
He spent the last years of his life alone, rarely exhibiting and largely unnoticed by the public. When he died at his home in New York in 1902 at the age of 72, he was mostly forgotten and his passing was little noted. He was buried in his childhood home of New Bedford.
Bierstadt the imperial painter is now long dead, but his work is coming back because of another role it played. Bierstadt was the very first artist to visit the still largely unmapped Yosemite Valley. His paintings of the Valley played a major role in the long fight to preserve it and to make Yosemite into a national park. It was through Bierstadt's paintings that audiences in the East and in the Midwest got their first look at Yosemite, at its soaring cliffs (Bierstadt didn't need to exaggerate here), waterfalls, and sequoia trees. The lasting legacy of his work turns out to be not imperial conquest, but conservation and the preservation of the wilderness that he saw shrink from an ocean to a pond in his lifetime.
Albert Bierstadt, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, 1865
Albert Bierstadt, Cholooke, The Yosemite Falls, 1864
Albert Bierstadt, Mariposa Grove, 1878
Albert Bierstadt, The Domes of Yosemite, 1867
Albert Bierstadt, Cathedral Rocks, Yosemite, Winter, 1872
Albert Bierstadt, Liberty Cam, Yosemite, 1873
Perhaps Bierstadt's work will find a new meaning and a new impact in an age that believes so strongly in the regenerative and even redemptive experience of nature; and yet is now so divorced from regular contact with it, where the very idea of wild primordial nature is coming to an end.
An autographed photograph of Albert Bierstadt scanned from the 1972 catalog
So far as I know there are only 2 artists in the USA to have mountains named after them Below is Mount Bierstadt in Colorado, 14,060 feet.
The other is Mount Moran
in the Tetons named for Thomas Moran.