Albert Bierstadt was a key member of the Hudson River School art movement which delivered stunning paintings of the natural landscape of North America.
Albert Bierstadt was a German-born American painter of the late 19th century. Widely considered one of the greatest landscape painters of all time, his style was both visionary and romantic in equal measure. Although he produced his paintings in his New York studio, he travelled extensively over the US and Europe to find his inspiration. Bierstadt was a prolific painter, perhaps producing more than 4000 works during his career and in his prime, he sold his work for record-breaking amounts of money. While he knew critical acclaim and fiscal success in his lifetime, by his death in 1902 at the age of 72, he was both bankrupted and almost forgotten as a painter.
His realistic, sometimes gratuitously embellished style fell out of favour and was subsequently replaced by the new and exciting impressionist movement which focused less on detail and more on light and expression. In the 1960's Albert's work experienced somewhat of a renaissance. The renewed appreciation of his work found critics hailing it as a love letter to lost indigenous people and the wilderness of America which had all but disappeared. Today, Bierstadt's work takes pride-of-place in some of the most prestigious museums of the world as wonderful examples of how beautiful and inspiring landscape paintings can be.
Albert's artistic skills were evident from a young age. However, in his early twenties, he realised that he needed to learn the finer skills if he wanted to be a serious painter. He returned to Germany and studied at the Dusseldorf School of Painting. The German landscape painters at this time were painstaking in their attention to detail both in brush strokes and the depiction of light. There is no doubt that this is where Bierstadt honed his great skill. It was also here that Albert encountered the work of Carl Friedrich Lessing and perhaps more importantly, Andreas Achenbach. Achenbach was a skilled portrait artist, but he also painted remarkable seascapes. His romantic use of light and colour made his work almost celestial in its beauty. Bierstadt began to adopt the same techniques and very quickly found he had great skill in capturing the divine within natural scenes.
One of Albert's earliest exhibits, Lake Lucerne (1853), was displayed in 1858 at the National Academy of Design to great critical acclaim, and the resemblance to Achenbach's style is remarkable. However, without a doubt, Bierstadt's greatest influence was mother nature herself. On his extensive travels he was continuously inspired by the great mountain ranges of Europe and North America. A great many of his masterpieces involved the majesty of peaks in their composition; sensitively rendered through his signature use of colour and light he brought the truly awe-inspiring grandeur to life.
The Hudson River School
Albert's landscapes did not only attract the attention of the critics, his fellow artists were also impressed. In fact, in 1857 he was invited to join an informal movement of like-minded painters known as The Hudson River School. Originally founded by Thomas Cole and Asher Brown Durand in 1825 and based on a deep appreciation of the New England landscape, The Hudson River School painters believed that the landscape of America was an expression of God and they sought to depict romantic style images that showed nature and man in harmony. While the earlier members of the group limited their landscapes to the northeast of America, by the time Bierstadt joined their ranks, they had expanded their horizons to the developing western territories and South America.
However, the themes favoured by the original group remained; discovery, exploration and settlement. Albert was so inspired by the work of the group that only two years later he set off with a surveying party headed by Frederick W. Lander into the western territories in search of exhilarating landscapes to paint. He was not disappointed. On his first trip he travelled as far as modern day Wyoming and on his return to his New York Studio, created some of the most iconic images of the Rocky Mountains and the American wilderness we have today, including Storm in the Rocky Mountains (1863) now housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Bierstadt made several additional trips including a journey all the way to the Pacific coast where he discovered the Sierra Nevada mountain range and the Yosemite Valley. The paintings he created from these voyages were always true to The Hudson River School principals, offering a bucolic and somehow spiritual depiction of the natural world, exemplified in the magnificent, Among the Sierra Nevada (1868) today found in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.
Albert, like his fellow Hudson River School artists, produced work in a very romantic style, and true to the romantic school, he did all of his work in a studio, guided only by sketches, photographs and memories of the breath-taking landscapes he had see on his travels. Perhaps as a result of memory lapse or purely for artistic reasons, Bierstadt often embellished his compositions using vivid, some would say inaccurate colours and even inventing rivers and landscapes that did not exist in nature. This artistic license prompted some harsh criticism from certain parties. However, it was his quest to glorify the wildness of the untouched west that prompted his departures from the truth, hoping to inspire awe and wonder.
Another of Bierstadt's peculiarities was the fact that he favoured truly enormous canvases. He is quoted as saying that he believed that the only way to convey the magnitude of the scenery was to create it in oversized paintings, some of which were over ten feet tall. However, he did draw a great deal of judgment from his fellow artists as they often considered his choice of massive canvases as ego driven.
Ultimately the most important and enduring aspect of Bierstadt's style is the use of colour and the way in which he expertly captured light. He was, in fact, a master of what would later be called luminism; an American technique of blending colour and shade with no visible brush strokes to create an atmosphere of peace. It is this profound skill that sets many of Albert’s painting apart from other landscape artists then and now, as he always manages to evoke the sacredness of nature and peace one feels in the presence of such beauty.
Bierstadt's landscapes are profound and legion, however there are some pieces that stand out from the rest for their beauty, skill and poignancy. Perhaps the most iconic of Alberts works would be View of the Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863). This painting exemplifies everything that Bierstadt hoped to achieve throughout his career. As the title suggests it is a study of the Mountains with Lander's Peak, a mountain named after Frederick W. Landers, in the centre and a native scene in the foreground. It was Albert himself who lobbied for the naming of the peak for his friend after he fell in battle in the American civil war.
It is therefore doubly fitting that it is not only a vision of his own inaugural trip into the west, but the subject matter symbolises his lost friend. Additionally, the composition of the painting is quintessentially Hudson River School in that it depicts a settlement of Shoshone people in the valley, a beautiful example of the easy blending of man and nature, living together in harmony. The painting was a huge success at its unveiling and sold for an amazing $25,000, which was a record-breaking amount at the time. Today it can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
No list of Bierstadt's great work would be complete without mentioning his final great western painting, The Last of the Buffalo (1888). This vast oil measures an impressive 6' x 10' and is a very emotive masterpiece. Even in 1888 conservationists knew the terrible loss of people and species that had been the cost of taming the wild west. In this moving painting Albert depicts the indigenous people hunting the great buffalo, both of whom would become all but extinct at the hands of the white man. This is another example of man and nature working together in harmony as the buffalo sustained the native people for centuries. It was not until the colonials' greed took over that the balance was destroyed, and this sacred way of life was extinguished forever. This remarkable work can be found today in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC.
Finally, it seems appropriate to highlight the painting which Albert himself considered his greatest work, The Emerald Pool (1870). Housed in the Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, Virginia, it depicts one of Bierstadt's favourite place in the White Mountains. It took him a great many sketches and several visits to the area before he managed to capture the serenity of the scene and he confessed that it was the most difficult painting he ever created but it is exquisite in its detail and atmosphere. Perhaps it was due to the fact that he felt compelled to render the scene faithfully that he struggled with its composition and execution. However, it is clear that his hard work bore fruit, as it was hailed at its unveiling as, "an ideal of landscape art".
The Bierstadt Legacy
Albert's work serves as a journal of the American west, and today it is honoured as such. Although his popularity dwindled in his later life, by the 1960 his paintings had a renaissance with many critics declaring him a national treasure. Many of his paintings take pride of place in the great Museums of America, indeed Rocky Mountain Landscape (1870) even hangs in the White House. He is remembered as one of the greatest landscape artists of all time and a father of the luminism style which gave us such greats as Fitz Hugh Lane and neo-luminists like April Gornik and Steven DaLuz. He was an unashamed romantic who captured on canvas a disappearing world of wildness and harmony and the art world is all the richer for it.
Artist Bierstadt captured the great Western expansion across the United States in the 19th century and this makes his work historically significant, beyond purely the artistic qualities of his landscape paintings. This was the Golden Age of the country's development and holds fond feelings for many patriot Americans. Bierstadt was not the only significant member of the Hudson River School, but ranks prominently alongside the likes of Thomas Cole, Thomas Moran and Frederic Edwin Church.
The artist's work was so intertwined with his work as a naturalist in the American countryside that Mount Bierstadt in Colorado was named after him. In honoured his work as both a painter but also someone who sought to protect the environment through more hands-on efforts. The style used by Bierstadt combines elements of realism and romanticism, faithfully re-producing what was seen by the artist's eye, only with his own personality added on top. Emotion in depiction was something which would help to differentiate Bierstadt from other members of the Hudson River School. It was also key to many other art movements such as French impressionism.
Bierstadt's Love of the Environment
This German-born American artist was highly prolific. His passion would drive him onto creating around 4,000 artworks during his life, the vast majority of which were landscape oil paintings. The accessibility of the countryside to Albert meant that he was able to paint whenever he wished. Sources of inspiration surrounded him throughout his life. He would then campaign for the protection of this environment, something that continues on today. Bierstadt respected and loved the scenes found through this website and wanted to ensure that they could be enjoyed by many more generations.
The Artistic Style of Albert Bierstadt
Characteristics of Bierstadt's work included lively, expressive skies which would lift the colour and light across his scenes. You will find examples of his stunning use of light in paintings such as Sunset in the Yosemite Valley and Yosemite Valley Yellowstone Park.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.