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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.