Albert Bierstadt – Vast and Luminous Landscapes

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Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902) was a remarkable German-American painter known for his vast and luminous landscapes. In this post, I take a closer look at his life and art. I cover:

Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868
Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868

Key Facts about Albert Bierstadt

  • He showed artistic talent from a young age, starting with crayon drawings then moving to oils in his 20s. He offered drawing lessons in his local neighborhood, with one of his advertisements stating, “Good pictures at their first attempt, far superior to their own expectations”. This was one of the first signs of an entrepreneurial strength which would lead Bierstadt to wealth and fame later in his career.
  • His art became popular with the local community, so much so that he was sponsored by wealthy individuals to travel to Germany and study at the Düsseldorf School of Painters. His mentor was to be Peter Hasenclever, a distant relative of Bierstadt. But, Hasenclever died around the time of Bierstadt’s arrival in 1853.
  • He then sought recommendations from two American artists, Emanuel Leutze and Worthington Whittredge, to study with the landscape painter Andreas Achenbach. But, Bierstadt was not deemed talented enough by the two Americans. Bierstadt was not deterred by this and continued practicing in Whittredge’s studio. He eventually painted Study for Sunlight and Shadows (shown below) which impressed Whittredge.
Albert Bierstadt, Study for Sunlight and Shadows, 1855
Albert Bierstadt, Study for Sunlight and Shadows, 1855
  • He later painted another version named Sunlight and Shadow. This painting marked the direction which Bierstadt wanted to take with his art: refined and stylized.
Albert Bierstadt, Sunlight and Shadow, 1862
Albert Bierstadt, Sunlight and Shadow, 1862
  • He was associated with the Hudson River School, a prominent group of artists who focused on sweeping and romanticized landscapes. Other artists from the group included Frederic Edwin Church, Thomas Cole and Thomas Hill. But, there seems to be limited information on how involved Bierstadt actually was with the School.
  • His two brothers become successful photographers after they abandoned their trade apprenticeships. The brothers assisted Bierstadt’s career by providing landscape photos for him to paint.
  • He painted Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War in 1861 based on a photograph taken by his brother Edward Bierstadt and his own brief experiences of the American Civil War. He ended up being drafted in 1863 but paid someone to be his replacement in the War.
Albert Bierstadt, Guerrilla Warfare, 1862
Albert Bierstadt, Guerrilla Warfare, 1862
  • In the years that followed, he started to achieve critical acclaim and wealth from his work. His The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak sold in 1865 for a staggering $25,000. At that point, it was the most paid for an American painting.
Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, 1863
Albert Bierstadt, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, 1863
  • He constructed Malkasten, a mansion and studio in New York which overlooked the Hudson River. Malkasten translates to “paintbox” in German. By the time Bierstadt was living in the mansion, his career was showing signs of a decline (the art world can be a cruel and fickle place). The mansion and many of his artworks were destroyed by a fire in 1882. James Gurney did an excellent write-up of the mansion here.
Bierstadt Collection. Library. Bierstadt's House at Irvington, Photo by Charles Bierstadt
Bierstadt Collection. Library. Bierstadt’s House at Irvington, Photo by Charles Bierstadt
Albert Bierstadt, Whyte's Lake, c. 1877
Albert Bierstadt, Whyte’s Lake, c. 1877

A Closer Look at Some of Albert Bierstadt’s Paintings

I take a closer look at some of Bierstadt’s paintings below. You might notice that many of his paintings have a similar composition and style. It seems to me that he found a formula which worked and he stuck with it. Who could blame him when it earned him so much success and wealth during his lifetime.

Also, most of these paintings are very large in person and this is a key part of their appeal. The photos below do not do them justice.

His California Spring (below) has a luminous feel to it. A powerful white light is bursting through the dramatic clouds in the sky. The sky and clouds dominate the composition, with only a small area being allocated for the land at the bottom. Some cows, trees and flowers are illuminated in the foreground.

Bierstadt painted with intricate detail throughout almost all of the painting, leaving hardly anything up to the imagination. But there is some simplification used in the background to give a sense of atmospheric perspective.

Albert Bierstadt, California Spring, 1875
Albert Bierstadt, California Spring, 1875

Rocky Mountain Landscape features a dramatic contrast between near-black darks and near-white lights. Light is bursting through the clouds and hitting the snow-capped mountains in the background.

There is a lack of atmospheric perspective in this painting. Everything is painted with remarkable clarity, including the distant mountain tops. Even the near-black darks are refined and detailed.

Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountain Landscape, 1870
Albert Bierstadt, Rocky Mountain Landscape, 1870

The painting below depicts a “storm in the mountains” and an interesting, circular cloud formation. The clouds act as a natural frame for the mountain peak in the distance. The saturated oranges contrast against the dull colors in the rest of the painting and depict light hitting the land.

Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Mountains, c.1870
Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Mountains, c.1870

Bierstadt made an interesting decision to let darks take up most of the landscape in the painting below. There is a dramatic, almost unreal feel to the painting.

Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie, 1866
Albert Bierstadt, Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie, 1866

The painting below follows the Yosemite Fall from the top of the mountain to the base. The men and horses in the foreground give a sense of the grand scale in the painting.

Albert Bierstadt, Cho-Looke, the Yosemite Fall, 1864
Albert Bierstadt, Cho-Looke, the Yosemite Fall, 1864

Bierstadt did branch out from time to time in terms of subject selection. Below is a classic wave composition with that beautiful turquoise color where light is shooting through the top of the wave.

Albert Bierstadt, The Shore of the Turquoise Sea, 1878
Albert Bierstadt, The Shore of the Turquoise Sea, 1878

Below are two of the many dramatic sunset paintings Bierstadt created. They are similar to his other landscapes, but instead of a clear, white light coming from overhead, there is a powerful, warm light coming from just above the horizon line. I personally think it would have been more effective to leave some of the darker areas vague and ambiguous, like the Tonalists did with their sunset paintings.

Albert Bierstadt, Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, 1869
Albert Bierstadt, Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, 1869
Albert Bierstadt, Sunset in the Rockies, 1866
Albert Bierstadt, Sunset in the Rockies, 1866

Below is a simple landscape from early in Bierstadt’s career. I prefer this painting over the more grandiose and refined paintings he produced later in his career. The brushwork is looser and more painterly, especially in the sky. It seems he was less focused on pushing drama and style in this painting.

Albert Bierstadt, Scene in the Tyrol, 1854
Albert Bierstadt, Scene in the Tyrol, 1854

Thanks for Reading!

Thanks for taking the time to read this post. I appreciate it! Feel free to share with friends. If you want more painting tips, check out my Painting Academy course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott

Draw Paint Academy

58 comments on “Albert Bierstadt – Vast and Luminous Landscapes”

      • No creo que sea una frase justa la comparacion con Dios, no soy religioso ultra, no voy a la iglesia, pero no ignoro la magnitud de la creacion de Dios, fuimos generados por el, uso a Albert a la distancia como maestro, miro cada detalle de sus pinturas tardo mucho en hacer una porque no tengo apuros, prefiero buscar la excelencia, ya soy una persona grande tengo 69 años autodidacta, comence con Bob Ross, no se dibujar pero hoy lentamente creci mucho hace unos 10 años o un poco mas que pinto como hobbie para mi sin vocacion comercial, y si a un maestro le seguis la pincelada hasta sentis como se sentia ese dia que pinto la obra., es algo mistico todo lo que sea arte, mirar un petorutti o mirar la piedad escultura o la capilla sextina, te da idea de lo mediocre que somos y dificilmente alguien lograra remplazar los maestros del ayer, un gran abrazo y muchas gracias, por estas imagenes.

        Reply
  1. I have loved reading this and the paintings I feel are wonderful. I live in England but visit my son and his family just outside Yosemite, so I will try to paint more mountains when I get back. You have inspired me with this article, Thank you so much xxx

    Reply
  2. Hello Dan, greetings from San Diego California. I have been reading your posts/newsletters for a while and have enjoyed everyone of them, they are full of useful information, your insight and desire to share
    your knowledge with us is commendable. Keep educating us for as long as you can, I am sure many artists from around the globe appreciate what you are doing. Sincerely, Sal Barajas

    Reply
    • Hi Dan, I can only subscribe Sal‘s comment! Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge and insights with us! Your posts are so informative!
      Best greetings from Austria,
      Walter

      Reply
  3. So inspiring! I love painting landscapes and I’m going to try to copy a few of Bierstadt’s. Thank you
    So much for each and every email.

    Reply
  4. Lovely! lt’s a shame that artists today cannot expect to be so well paid that they can build mansions. Now, rappers are considered “artists” and at least one is worth a billion dollars. Shame.

    Reply
    • Elaborate and inspiring post indeed. I always love to read the links you refer. Thank you so much Dan for being active online.
      Regards,
      Arunachalam
      Madurai.

      Reply
  5. Do you ever see art that is so beautiful that it makes you nearly cry? That’s how I feel about Bierstat’s paintings.

    Reply
  6. Thank you, Dan, not only for this article but all the articles, tips, and insights you’ve shared! I’ve incorporated some of your suggestions into my painting, and have been quite pleased with my results. Your generosity of spirit is much appreciated.

    Reply
  7. I can only mimic the previous comments; I am new to painting water colors, painting oils and acrylics in my younger days. Since retiring, I now have the time to refresh myself and learn new things. I have never studied art and few artists’ works. Thank you so much for introducing me to these masters. They are so inspiring! Your tips and techniques help me to know that I am not alone in this new endeavor and that I cannot expect perfection….maybe ever!

    Reply
    • I am the same as you and amazed at these beautiful paintings. Know little about any of them so am being enlightened on here. I am from NI and love to see the techniques etc
      shown here amazing. Will be encouraged to start trying to get back to oil painting.

      Reply
    • Amazing paintings of architecture and light and dark , was an experience artist as can see the details on the works but work into watercolours and oils trying to create architecture but get stucture and light hard

      Reply
  8. How do I stop getting everyone’s reply but still get your emails with the wonderful painting stories and tips. Thanks.

    Rosary Bittmann

    Reply
  9. Love learning about artists. It really illustrates that art is a reflection of the unique individual holding the brush and enables me anyway to view a piece of art with greater sight.

    Reply
  10. Hi Dan,
    All I can say is “this man could paint ! “.
    I couldn’t stand myself if I was that good, my head would be the size of a watermelon.
    Better than a photograph, awesome colour combos, can’t say much more than that.
    Thanks for the post, keep ’em coming Dan the man.???
    Dave M. ????

    Reply
  11. Hi Dan – I hail all the way from Cape Town in SA and want to say a huge thank you for sharing this mans amazing work with us. I too have never heard of him (mind I am new to this wonderful world of painting) and am totally mesmerised by the luminosity in his works. Imagine being able to sit in a class and being taught by him. I love your mails and look forward to reading them all again and again. You have inspired me yet again today. THANK YOU

    Reply
  12. When I see that my inbox contains a post from you, Dan, I feel as if a gift were waiting to be unwrapped. In giving us your thoughtful, illustrated introductions, you make your followers feel as if a friend and fellow artist were speaking to them in your studio, informally and in person. I can’t imagine a better guide to the world of paint.

    Reply
  13. I’m back into oils after a break of forty years, re-learning past practices. Ready to start a waterfall; this post will really help me. Thanks for all your posts; didn’t know there were four “Sunflowers”.
    Fred

    Reply
  14. Love your comments. I see where so many “rules” I have learned, seem to be broken, and yet he has created such inspiring paintings. It just reinforces the idea that whatever “rules” one may break, a great masterpiece is possible through one’s own interpretation of a subject . What a gift to be able to do that.

    Reply
  15. Nicely done. I am always fascinated by Albert Bierstadt art. My always had(copy I think) of Yosemite valley on her wall. It has been there for 40/50 years. Still have it till today.

    Reply
  16. Oh how beautiful. I was wondering how real the landscapes were and I see from the comments that I was not alone in that thought. I don’t think it matters, they are glorious and the colour and light is just lush.

    Reply
  17. Hi Dan
    Thank you for sharing this amazing artist as you have for several other artists, and which broadens our knowledge and appreciation of painting. So grateful.

    Reply
  18. Dan , your posts are amazing. So full of information , and a point of view. Always looking forward to your next one

    Reply
  19. Dear Dan, Thank you so very much for alerting us to Albert Bierstadt’s mind-blowing exquisitely beautiful and moving landscapes. No one else can match his brilliance, his colour, shadow, scale, amazingly delicate light. In the Scottish National Gallery I was always bowled over by Frederick Edwin Church’s Niagara Falls, one of his associates, but Bierstadt takes the prize! Looking forward to more of your brilliance too, every thing you come up with is a joy.

    Ruth F.

    Reply
  20. I have learned so much from your courses and these type of emails. You have opened up a whole new world for me and I look at pieces of art with so much more appreciation. Thank you.

    Reply
  21. Thank you Dan for another insightful look at the painting of another brilliant artists. How did he get the luminosity?????

    Reply
  22. Thank you Dan! I live in Stockton, CA, where the Haggin Museum has a large collection of Bierstadts. I just visited them this last week, and was again thrilled by these paintings. If you are ever in CA and driving through the Central Valley (it’s “on the way” to many interesting places ;-0 ), do stop and see the collection. I appreciate your insights into this fine painter.

    Reply

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