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:
- Key Facts About Albert Bierstadt
- A Closer Look at Some of Albert Bierstadt’s Paintings
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
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.
- Two locations have been named in his honor: Mount Bierstadt and Lake Bierstadt.
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.
Want to Learn More?
You might be interested in my Painting Academy course. I’ll walk you through the time-tested fundamentals of painting. It’s perfect for absolute beginner to intermediate painters.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post and I hope you found it helpful. Feel free to share it with friends.
Draw Paint Academy
59 comments on “Albert Bierstadt – Vast and Luminous Landscapes”
Thanks for this amazing collection!
I heard he was once accused of attempting to improve God’s work. Seems a fair assessment to me. ?
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.
Thank you! Very inspiring!
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
Fascinating. Thank you for sharing.
I loved this post
Thank you very much .
for showing this great work of art
Very enjoyable post!! Gives me something to aspire to!
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
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,
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.
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.
Great, Thank you
Elaborate and inspiring post indeed. I always love to read the links you refer. Thank you so much Dan for being active online.
Thank you from Canada. This post has taken me to many places in awe. Such mastery.
Do you ever see art that is so beautiful that it makes you nearly cry? That’s how I feel about Bierstat’s paintings.
I feel the same way l have a copy of one of his Yosemite painting. It’s beautiful.
I FEEL THE SAME!!!
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.
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!
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.
Wow!! the lightness in all the paintings are so beautifull!!!! Thank u a lot, it make me so happy!!
Beautiful introduction of the artist , his works… History! Thank you for this inspiring article.
Beautiful introduction of the artist and his works. Thank you for this inspiring article.
Thank you for taking the reader to see these wonderful paintings that you’ve shared!
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
How do I stop getting everyone’s reply but still get your emails with the wonderful painting stories and tips. Thanks.
Hi Dan , such drama in paint, just astounding. Thanks for expanding my limited knowledge.
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.
Great read !
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. ????
This was so interesting and inspiring! Thanks so much for the info and the beautiful paintings in this article. Looking forward to more!
Beautiful, I’d never heard of Albert Bierstadt before.
Stunning paintings, thanks for your interesting articles Dan 🙂
Thanks for sharing. His paintings are amazing!
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
Thanks for the informative write up on Albert Bierstadt’s art and his techniques. The following museum has a great collection of Hudson River School artists including Bierstadt.
Thank you for sharing this, Dan!!
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.
What information! What precious paintings right on our screen!
Thank you Dan. Await your next blog.
Thank you Dan for your selection of paintings which are full of drama. Using the lights and darks. Inspirational.
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”.
Wow wow he is magnificent , thank you for sharing.
Thank you very much .
for showing this great work of art
Remarkable landscape painting ,Thanks
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.
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.
Its a marvel to watch these paintings!. Dan I am so grateful to you for all your posts.
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.
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.
Dan , your posts are amazing. So full of information , and a point of view. Always looking forward to your next one
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.
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.
Thank you Dan for another insightful look at the painting of another brilliant artists. How did he get the luminosity?????
Wow! Fantastic landscapes! His use of light is amazing.
Thanks for sharing.
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.
His work is heart stopping.
I love this! Thank you for such interesting information beautifully illustrated. I write novels about American pioneers and Bierstadt’s paintings have been a constant inspiration. The inhabitants of America, native and immigrant, lived often difficult lives surrounded by astonishing beauty for those who would see it.