Albert Bierstadt

(January 7, 1830 - February 18, 1902)

AlexanderAlbert Bierstadt was among the most energetic, industrious, and internationally honored American artists of the nineteenth century. Although America claims the popular artist, Albert Bierstadt, Germany has the honor of his birth, for he was welcomed into the world at Dusteldorf. Born in humble circumstances in Solingen, Germany, he emigrated at age two to America with his parents and his two brothers. The family settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where his father became established as a barrelmaker; Albert's youth and early manhood having been passed at New Bedford. Little is known about Bierstadt's rearing or early artistic training, but he was advertising himself as an instructor in monochromatic painting in New Bedford in 1850, the same year he exhibited thirteen of those works and one drawing in Boston. His collaboration during the next three years with a daguerreotypist who produced theatrical presentations of American scenery laid the foundation for his lifelong interests in photography and North American topography.

At the age of about twenty-two years he began to paint portraits in oil colors. In 1853 he visited Europe and studied art at the Düsseldorf Art Academy, making sketching tours into Germany and Switzerland during the summer months.

Although he had entered that period of formal training with only rudimentary capabilities, he emerged from it an ambitious, technically proficient master whose tastes for European scenery and society had been considerably enhanced in the process. In 1857 he returned to America, and began painting portraits at Newport. Removing from that place he went first to Boston, then to New York, and in 1778 to London, where for about two years he met with but little success and suffered from poverty.

On his return to New Bedford, he quickly became the city's most prominent artist, organizing in 1858 a large exhibition of paintings - including fifteen of his own works - that brought him to national attention. His career decisively expanded in 1859, when he traveled to the territories of Colorado and Wyoming, for a time in the company of a United States government survey expedition headed by Colonel Frederick W. Lander. The purpose of Bierstadt's trip was to procure sketches for a series of large-scale landscape paintings of the American West. After he moved to the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York, he painted a sequence of canvases that secured his renown as a "western" artist and as the foremost competitor of Frederic E. Church in the field of monumental New World landscapes.

Bierstadt rode the crest of success for the next decade. He made two additional western journeys, one in 1863, the other from 1871 to 1873. In the interval between, he married Rosalie Ludlow, built Malkasten, a magnificent mansion overlooking the river at Irvington-on-Hudson, New York, and undertook a two-year tour of Europe, where he and his wife mingled with the créme de la créme of British and Continental society. At the same time, he was painting spectacular pictures of western scenery, which were widely exhibited in the United States and abroad and which commanded the highest prices in American art at the time. Bierstadt balanced that wealth by his selfless participation in numerous charitable organizations and events.

Bierstadt's paintings began to attract adverse criticism in the mid-1860s. After 1880, his reputation substantially declined in the face of changing tastes, and he experienced a series of personal misfortunes that included the destruction by fire of Malkasten in 1882 and the death of his wife in 1893. Yet neither his public demeanor nor the plenitude of his artistic creativity was seriously hampered until the last years of his life. The sometimes uneven quality of his work, the stagey compositional effects to which he frequently resorted, and his sheer productivity tempted late-nineteenth-century writers and some twentieth-century observers to criticize him harshly. The temptation should be steadfastly resisted. Bierstadt's theatrical art, fervent sociability, international outlook, and unquenchable personal energy reflected the epic expansion in every facet of western civilization during the second half of the nineteenth century.

Albert Bierstadt was the last of the older generation of American romantic landscape painters.

Albert Bierstadt, born in Solingen, near Düsseldorf, Germany, was brought to New Bedford, Mass., as a baby. At the age of 21 he determined to be a painter, and in 1853 he went to Düsseldorf to study. Bierstadt was trained to use a light, meticulous technique and drab coloring; as a result, his painting always tended to be rather stiff and dry. He returned to New Bedford in 1857, and the following year he went west on a surveying expedition. There Bierstadt first saw the scenic grandeur which would become the chief subject matter of his paintings.

With the opening of the West there was enormous popular interest in the romantic splendor of the mountain scenery, and Bierstadt came along at just the right time to make the most of the situation. He executed numerous small sketches on the spot, which he combined and rearranged in his studio to produce panoramas of large scale.

In his early paintings, such as the Bombardment of Fort Sumter, Bierstadt worked in a clear, luminous style which lent enchantment to the scene. His early sketches of the West, with their silvery light and poetic mood, marked the final flowering of the romantic style in American painting. His large canvases were ponderous and dry and too melodramatic. His colors became raw and the work lacked spontaneity. Yet in one canvas, Hetch Hetchie Canyon, done in the mid-1870s, he managed to combine the feeling of grandeur with a poetic mood and a magical light. He was tempted too often to overextend himself and, not being a painter of much intensity of feeling, was unable to sustain vitality when working on large scale. He loved publicity and was carried away by the uncritical enthusiasm of the general public rather than heeding the more carefully considered criticism of those who were better informed.

Although Bierstadt's sketches are fresher and more spontaneous, his huge canvases were eagerly sought and commanded prices from $5,000 to $35,000. His painting of Estes Park, Colo., executed for the 4th Earl of Dunraven, a noted game hunter in the Rockies, started a Bierstadt fad in Great Britain.

During his lifetime Bierstadt received many honors, and Congress purchased two of his paintings for the Capitol in Washington, D.C. He was decorated in Germany and Austria, and in France he was made a chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur. He became a member of the National Academy of Design in New York in 1860.

Bierstadt's considerable wealth enabled him to build a mansion at Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., where he lived in great style. Although he was honored as America's most successful painter, other artists resented him. In the 1880s new styles in painting caught the public's fancy, and Bierstadt lost popularity. His house burned down, his fortune had been expended, and his work was regarded as old-fashioned and outdated. In the 1940s, after 50 years of oblivion, his work began to regain popularity as interest in American romantic painting revived. His smaller works, especially the earlier sketches, are now greatly admired, and he has been restored to the position he deserves.

Encyclopedia of World Biography on Albert Bierstadt

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