Albert Bierstadt's biography is full of adventure, travel, success and recognition, as will be presented below. He is known for his stunning landscape paintings and for his artistic record of the 19th century Westward Expansion in the United States.
During his life, Bierstadt was also a member of two artistic groups: the Hudson River School and the Rocky Mountain School. His love of nature has become immortal in his paintings and he leaves behind a legacy still apparent today.
Early Life (1830-1857)
Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Prussia, which is modern-day Germany, on January 7th, 1830; however, he was brought to the United States when he was only a year old. His parents, Christina M. Tillmans and Henry Bierstadt, who worked as a copper, moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. It is reported that Albert took an early interest in art and began to create oil paintings at the age of twenty. His interest in nature and landscapes also began when living in America. His signature was recorded at the top of Mount Washington in 1852.
The next year, Albert would return to Germany to study in Dusseldorf for a few years at an informal painting school. He did apply to the renown Dusseldorf Academy but was not accepted. He was taught instead by American painter Worthington Whittredge. He was also able to spend the winter in Rome and visited other areas of Italy and Switzerland. While here, he was able to refine his technical painting skills and practice Alpine or mountainous landscapes, which would further influence his later works.
Early Career (1857-1858)
In 1857, Albert came back to America and briefly taught drawing and painting. Afterwards, he devoted himself to his paintings and his career as an artist. In this same year, Bierstadt sold his painting of The Portico of Octavia Rome to the Boston Anthenaeum which was a very good sign for his career. He also had more recognition when another painting of a Swiss landscape was exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York City. This opportunity gained him an honorary membership in the Academy.
Record of the Westward Expansion Years (1859-1863)
Bierstadt set off with a company led by Colonel Frederick W. Lander, an American land surveyor, on an overland survey expedition to visit the newly discovered and conquered western United States. Albert was able to see many beautiful sights during this first journey. By the spring of 1859, the company had reached the Nebraska territory and by the summer they had made it to the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains, which is the modern location of the state of Wyoming. Albert ended his journey due to the coming inclement weather expected to arrive and make travelling more difficult.
Upon returning, he would move to New York where he would open his studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building. Here, he would work on paintings created from his many sketches he made on this journey, including Thunderstorm in the Rocky Mountains (1859) and Indian Encampment, Shoshone Village (1860). Another westward journey awaited Bierstadt in 1863. This time he would travel with Fitz Hugh Ludlow, an author, and two other friends. This particular journey was more leisurely and informal. The group ended up in modern day California where they were able to see Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the Yosemite Valley.
His visit to Yosemite resulted in Camping in the Yosemite (1864) and California Redwoods (1875), which gained him international success. They would end their journey in Oregon to see the gorgeous Cascade Mountains and took a steamer ship through Panama to land in New York in December 1863.
Later Career (1864-1882)
After Bierstadt's western journeys, he was considered the leading landscape artist throughout America and even Europe. In 1867, Bierstadt traveled to London where he had a private reception and exhibition with Queen Victoria. He would continue to travel to Europe and throughout the United States, continuing to paint beautiful landscapes. He even had the chance to paint landscapes from the Bahamas, which would have been quite a change. It was mostly in his later career that he received criticism for his works.
Critics said his works were far too theatrical and too romantic. Some considered his paintings to be glorifying expansion and taking lands from the native populations of America. There was a decline in interest in his works later in his life. His studio in Irvington, New York was destroyed by fire in 1882 which caused the loss of some of his paintings.
Other Artistic Involvement
As previously stated, Bierstadt was a member of two artistic groups: The Hudson River School and the Rocky Mountain School. The Rocky Mountain School has less information available but is fairly self-explanatory. The school represented a group of painters who created art pieces depicting the Rocky Mountains. Another famous artist from this informal school was Thomas Moran. The Hudson River School was an artistic movement in the mid-19th century characterized by landscape paintings with a romantic aesthetic and influence. The paintings in this movement depicted three major themes: discovery, exploration and settlement.
Originally the paintings depicted the areas around the Hudson River Valley in New York, including Catskill, Adirondack and the White Mountains. This scope expanded with later artists to include locations and landscapes of New England, the Maritimes, western America and South America. Artists often represented nature and human beings in a peaceful coexistence with realistic and sensuous details. Thomas Cole is believed to have been the founder of this movement as he painted the first landscape of the Hudson River Valley. Cole's death in 1848 began the second generation of the Hudson River School, which included Bierstadt.
Other notable artists were: Frederic Edwin Church, John Frederick Kensett, and Sanford Robinson Gifford. These second generation artists are also credited with employing Luminism into their paintings. Luminism refers to the artistic style in which artists create light effects in their paintings and hide their brushstrokes, thus create a tranquil effect with calm, reflective water and a hazy sky. This technique is also meant to instill reflection in the viewer, which is synonymous with the romantic representation of nature by these same artists.
Exhibitions and Notable Paintings
Bierstadt was able to display his paintings in numerous locations throughout his career. From 1859 to 1864, some of his works were displayed at the Boston Anthenaeum. His works could also be seen at the Brooklyn Art Association from 1861 to 1879. Finally, he exhibited at the Boston Art Club from 1873 to 1880. A very significant exhibition was the Sanitary Fair in New York in 1864 where his features were reportedly illuminated by 490 gas jets. This would have created quite a scene.
Laramie Peak and View of the Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, completed in 1861 and 1863 respectively, are considered to be the paintings that initiated Bierstadt's high reputation in the art world. The painting of Lander's Peak earned him $25,000 USD in 1865, which would be the equivalent of nearly $400,000 USD today. This created the record for the largest sum ever paid for a painting in the United States. Among the Sierra Nevada, California (1868) and Valley of the Yosemite (1864) are other notable paintings. The Last of the Buffalo (1888) was considered to be his final, great western painting.
It is estimated he created at least 500 paintings in his lifetime but possibly as many as 4000. Fortunately, many have survived. Many of them are found in museums and galleries across the United States. For example, The Emerald Pool is currently held in the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia. Albert considered this to be his best painting. The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and Among the Sierra Nevada, California is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum. His paintings are still being sold as well. In 2001, Bierstadt's painting A Sioux Camp Near Laramie Peak (1859) was sold for $941,000 USD.
Personal Life and Final Years
There are some interesting details of Albert Bierstadt's life that don't necessarily fit in with his artistic career but are still significant. For example, in 1863, Bierstadt paid for a substitute to take his place in the American Civil War after he was drafted. He also had a brother, Edward Bierstadt, who joined him in some excursions as he was a photographer and provided images that inspired some of Albert's paintings, including Guerilla Warfare, Civil War (1862). Albert had 3 other siblings: an older brother, Charles, an older sister, Helen, and a younger sister, Eliza. In July 1866, Albert married Rosalie Osbourne in New York.
She had previously been married to Fitz Hugh Ludlow - the same man who Bierstadt toured with in 1863 - but the couple had divorced. After their wedding, Albert and Rosalie traveled in Europe for two years. This allowed Bierstadt to maintain studios in London, Paris and Rome. In 1976, Rosalie was diagnosed with consumption, or tuberculosis, and needed to live in a warmer climate. This is when the couple moved to Nassau in the Bahamas, where Bierstadt was able to paint some different landscapes.
Rosalie passed away in 1893 at the age of fifty-two. The next year, Bierstadt remarried and would move back permanently to New York. His second wife was Mary Hicks Stewart, a wealthy widow. Bierstadt kept up a little with his painting throughout his finals years but his recognition declined. He even declared bankruptcy in 1895. He passed away suddenly after a walk in New York City on February 18th, 1902 at the age of seventy-two. He was buried beside his parents at the Rural Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts - the same place he first lived when he moved to America.
Recognition and Legacy
Bierstadt received many honors, awards and recognition throughout his career as a painter thanks to his stunning creations. Throughout his career, he received medals in Austria, Bavaria, Belgium, and Germany. He received the Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor by Napoleon III. He also received the Order of the Stanislaus from the Czar of the Russias. In between journeys to western America, Bierstadt became a member of the Century Association and the National Academy of Design. He would remain a member of these groups until his death.
Despite decline in interest later in this life, interest increased again in Bierstadt. In the later part of the 20th century, people began to become interested again in Bierstadt's depictions of western American because the issue of the preservation of the land began to grow. Albert even has a mountain and a lake named after him. Mount Bierstadt and Bierstadt Lake, both in Colorado, are so named to honor Bierstadt due to his paintings of mountains. As mentioned above, many of his painting can be seen throughout the United States. Bierstadt was able to achieve great success and recognition throughout his lifetime and his influence can still be seen and felt today.