NEW YORK, NY -- As the best-known early painter of the American West, Albert Bierstadt was largely responsible for introducing east coast audiences to the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada ranges. The artist was also a skilled promoter of his own work, resulting in financial and critical success during his lifetime and a renewed interest in his legacy during the 20th century.
Albert Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Germany in 1830 and emigrated with his family to New Bedford, Massachusetts as a young child. Largely self-taught, he began to advertise himself to the community as a drawing instructor. In the 1850s, Bierstadt traveled back to Germany to study painting in Dusseldorf. Though he was not a student at the Dusseldorf Academy, he developed friendships with Emanuel Leutze and Worthington Whittredge, both of whom became informal mentors to him. After three years in Dusseldorf, Bierstadt and Whittredge went on an extended tour of Europe, creating sketches along the way.
By 1857, Bierstadt had returned to New Bedford. The following year, he exhibited a large painting of Lake Lucerne in the Swiss Alps at the National Academy of Design in New York. The work’s warm reception was the young artist’s first taste of success and showcased his potential as a painter of romantic mountainous landscapes.
In 1859, Bierstadt joined a surveying expedition to the Rocky Mountains led by Colonel Frederick W. Lander. This would be the first of many trips west for the artist. On these sojourns he produced copious sketches, often in oil, which he would later use to compose large, panoramic canvases. Upon his return from the expedition, Bierstadt established himself in a studio on 10th Street in New York and began work on the first of these monumental vistas. When exhibited in the early 1860s, the panoramas were praised for their romantic portrayal of the American West as a new Eden.
Bierstadt continued to travel out west for the rest of his life, earning enormous financial and critical success from his labors. He was elected a full Academician of the National Academy of Design, earned an audience with Queen Victoria to present two of his paintings, and won commissions from the US Congress to create two murals for the Capitol Building. As tastes changed, Bierstadt’s large canvases began to fall out of favor. The rise in popularity of the Barbizon School and later the Impressionists made his paintings look old-fashioned to contemporary audiences. Except among collectors such as Thomas Gilcrease, who had a particular interest in American art of the west, Bierstadt’s work was not reconsidered until the latter half of the 20th century.
A series of exhibitions in the 1960s focused on Bierstadt’s oil sketches once again captivated audiences. These works uniquely highlight the artist’s attention to color, and exhibit his confident brushwork, which appealed to modern sensibilities. Bierstadt’s studies were executed with a directness not unlike the art being created by contemporary figures. Indeed, the palette of high-key salmon tones against the neutral greys and silhouetted horizon of Sunset over the Trees could easily be compared to the Rothko works being lauded around that time. These intimate sketches document Bierstadt’s observations of nature and were an integral part of the process he used to compose his vast theatrical landscapes.
American Paintings, Furniture & Decorative Arts
A highlight of the online-only auction of American Paintings, Furniture & Decorative Arts closing on April 22 is a masterful view of Sunset Over the Trees by Albert Bierstadt. Read More