Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt
Born Jan. 7, 1830
Solingen, Germany
Died Feb. 18, 1902 (at age 72)
New York City, New York
Nationality German-American
Education Düsseldorf School
Movement Hudson River School
Field Painting
Works View Complete Works

Born in Germany, Albert Bierstadt became one of the greatest landscape artists in history. Inspired by landscaping of the unsettled American West, Bierstadt created panoramic landscape scenes which were naturalistic, with a touch of romanticism. Bierstadt’s excessive touring of North America, Europe, and the Bahamas gave him a first-hand approach to recreating the views in his paintings. Bierstadt was skilled in photography and made sketches and stenography to recreate his enormous paintings. Although Bierstadt’s works were not fully recognized during his lifetime, they are now a unique part of American history.

Early Life and Education

Albert and his family moved from Germany to Massachusetts in 1831. At a very young age, he developed sketching skills and a desire to expand his artistic talents. He began advertising himself as a skilled, monochromatic painting instructor in New Bedford but soon realized his limitations. He returned to Germany to study painting at the Dusseldorf School of Painting from 1853 to 1857, where influences of Carl Friedrich Lessing and Andreas Achenbach helped to polish his paintings. The school encouraged the use of meticulous brushstrokes and dramatic lighting, adding dimension and value to his works.

Albert began his painting career while residing in New England and New York, but he traveled often, to be able to see the scenery that he was recreating on canvas. In 1959, Bierstadt traveled westward with Colonel Frederick W. Lander, a land surveyor for the United States government. He returned from his journey with numerous sketches, which later became paintings. In 1863, he returned to the unsettled West once again, with Fitz Hugh Ludlow, an author, and created his first panoramic landscape in 1864. The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak created international fame for Bierstadt and marked the beginning of his successful yet somewhat short career as a renowned artist of landscapes.

Painting Style Influences and Recognition

Albert Bierstadt was part of the Hudson River School, which was an informal group of painters with similar ideas and styles, such as painting with detail, and romantic, glowing illumination. He was also a member of the Rocky Mountain School, along with Thomas Moran, Thomas Hill, and William Keith, who also interpreted western landscapes. In 1860, he was selected to become a member in the National Academy of Design in New York City, which is an honorary association of artists promoting the fine arts. Bierstadt was also awarded medals in Bavaria, Austria, Belgium, and Germany for his landscape paintings.

Bierstadt’s success developed in two different stages. His paintings became more developed and refined as he sought to learn a distinct naturalistic style, while attending Dusseldorf School, and his extensive touring of scenic landscapes in person gave him the opportunity to model his works from reality. Hudson River School believed that art could be used as a medium of moral and spiritual change, and Bierstadt’s paintings were respected by those viewers who supported American Transcendentalism.

Bierstadt’s The Portico of Octavia Rome was his first painting sold, to the Boston Athenaeum in 1857. His painting career was finally beginning. In 1858, his first official art exhibition occurred at the National Academy of Design, in New York. He was contracted to paint two works by the United States Capital for display, and in 1867, Albert was presented to Queen Victoria, and awarded the Legion of Honor, by Napoleon III. Over his lifetime as an artist, he completed over 500 works, and possibly as many as 4,000 paintings, which are now scattered through art museums in the United States and Europe. Many of his beautiful landscapes are located in the Smithsonian Museum, such as Sunrise in the Sierras, Gates of the Yosemite, and Indians in Council

Painting Characteristics

Albert Bierstadt used oil paints on uncommonly large canvasses, some of which were over ten-feet wide. His panoramic, detailed landscapes captured the vastness of this sometimes unknown, unsettled territory. His paintings appealed to human emotions, using strong colors, and contrasts of light and shade. The contrasts used in his paintings also added dramatic effects, such as the sense of depth, while also creating a mood. The vastness and depth of the landscapes, along with brilliant color, perspective, and detailed textural contrasts made his larger-than-life paintings realistic yet romantic.

Bierstadt received quite harsh criticism from peers, throughout his life as an artist. The extremely large canvasses that he used were thought to be egotistical, dwarfing other artists’ works. Other artists criticized his romantic use of light and colors. Bierstadt painted what he believed the way things should look sometimes, instead of realistically. He used ultramarine colored water, or lush green vegetation, making others challenge its validity. Other artists also criticized atmospheric elements added, such as fog, clouds, or mist, stating that these were added to romanticize the colorless, barren scenery. Albert Bierstadt sometimes did change details of a landscape setting, to inspire awe in the viewer.

The Final Years

Albert Bierstadt became the predominant American West landscape painter for the remainder of the century. At the peak of his career, he resided and had a studio, Malkasten, on the Hudson River, in 1882. In 1886, he married, made various trips to Europe and California and even rode on the Transcontinental Railroad. When his wife acquired tuberculosis, they traveled to the Bahamas. A large number of his paintings were burned in a fire at his studio, along with a large collection of engravings and gifts from General Sheridan, General Custer, and other Army officers during his travels West.

Albert’s wife later passed on in 1893. He remarried, but his paintings were overshadowed by the acceptance of French Impressionism, which became favored over realistic paintings. Bierstadt filed bankruptcy in 1895, and died as a somewhat forgotten artist in New York City, at the age of 72. Albert Bierstadt’s endless valleys, mountainous peaks, and gushing waterfalls transformed the sometimes rugged, colorless and barren wilderness into beautiful scenery which are still appreciated and revered today.

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