Albert Bierstadt, who we might say legitimized the Western American landscape as a serious subject for oil painting, began his artistic career modestly enough in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where his parents settled after emigrating from Germany in 1832. Little is known of his early years, but by 1850 he was offering art lessons, and in the same year he exhibited for the first time in Boston.
Sponsored by local patrons, he was able to travel in 1853 to Düsseldorf, where he hoped to improve his artistic skills through a period of European study. He sought out fellow-American artists Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) and Emanuel Leutze (1816-68), hoping they could persuade the famous German landscape painter Andreas Achenbach (1815-1910) to accept him as a student. The two expatriates found the beginner’s studies so poor that they told him (untruthfully) the master never took pupils. Undeterred, Bierstadt worked for several months in Whittredge’s studio and also made sketching tours, following Achenbach’s example of going directly to nature for source material. Working incessantly, the young artist translated his field studies into large, finished canvases. Before returning to New Bedford, he made additional excursions to Switzerland and Italy with Whittredge, Sanford Gifford (1823-80), and others.
Bierstadt began to establish his reputation as a landscape painter by working up his views of European scenery, but soon the American landscape beckoned. He made sketching trips to the White Mountains and Newport, and in 1859 joined the survey party of Colonel Frederick West Lander, who was charged with improving the overland routes to the West. They traveled along the Platte River to the Wind River Mountains, where Bierstadt, with two companions, left the expedition and spent several weeks sketching the mountains, plains, and their native inhabitants. In the Rockies he found an American wilderness seen by few artists and one, moreover, that rivaled the Alps. The effects of light and shade and color reminded him of Italy. Bierstadt declared, “Our own country has the best material for the artist in the world.” An important result of this trip was his first large-scale Western painting, Base of the Rocky Mountains (c.1860, lost).
The artist went west again in 1863, this time heading for Yosemite Valley; he had seen the Yosemite photographs of Carleton E. Watkins (1829-1916) in Goupil’s Gallery, New York. Traveling by stagecoach, he and his three companions slept outdoors and carried guns in case of Indian attack.
Back in New York, Bierstadt’s paintings of Western subjects began to receive critical acclaim. When he exhibited his Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) opposite The Heart of the Andes by the much acclaimed Frederic Church (1826-1900) at the 1864 New York Sanitary Fair, the eminent American art critic James Jackson Jarves recognized Bierstadt as unsurpassed in his rendition of American light. This favorable reception heralded a decade of tremendous success. Bierstadt’s major paintings began to bring record sums; Rocky Mountains sold for twenty-five thousand dollars, and The Domes of Yosemite (1867), a commissioned work, for perhaps even more. In 1866 Bierstadt married Rosalie Osborne Ludlow, divorced wife of his friend Fitz Hugh Ludlow, and in 1867 the newlyweds sailed to Europe for a two-year excursion. They were received as international socialites: in London, they met Queen Victoria; in Paris, Bierstadt received the Legion of Honor; in Rome, the couple visited Liszt. Though far from home, Bierstadt continued to produce finished paintings of Western scenery, working in rented studios.
Perpetually restless, Bierstadt traveled west again in 1871, this time in the comfort of the new transcontinental railroad. He stayed nearly two years and sketched Yosemite and other parts of the Sierra Nevada range. Greeted as a great artist in San Francisco, he sold many of his works to prominent Bay Area collectors.
During the 1870’s, as epic landscapes fell from favor, Bierstadt’s reputation began to decline, at least among critics and artists. His work at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 was not well received, and later the group of American artists in charge of selecting works for the 1889 Paris Universal Exposition rejected his Last of the Buffalo (c. 1889, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.). Nevertheless, the artist continued to make sketching trips to the West: Estes Park in 1876, California in 1880, British Columbia in 1880, Yellowstone in 1881, Canada and Alaska in 1889. Bierstadt sought fresh inspiration in an ever-retreating North American wilderness, and his paintings continued to attract collectors willing to pay high prices for his work. The Earl of Dunraven, for example, paid him fifteen thousand dollars to paint a 5-by-8-foot view of Longs Peak in the Rocky Mountains.
From the late 1870’s on Bierstadt’s life was a mixture of work, gaiety, and misfortune. Beginning in 1877, his wife began going to the Bahamas for her health. He frequently joined her and while there added sketches of Bahamian scenery to his portfolio. Their extravagant life-style in Nassau, New York, and Europe seems to have caused Bierstadt considerable financial problems. Yet his flirtation with high society and his frequent jaunts to Europe (1878, 1883, 1884, 1887, and 1891) may have been as much to prospect for clients as for pleasure and study. In 1882 he lost his home and studio on the Hudson in a fire that destroyed some paintings, many studies and sketches, and his collection of Indian artifacts.
In 1893 Bierstadt’s wife Rosalie died, and the following year he married Mary Hicks Stewart, of the prominent Hicks family of Brooklyn and widow of the prosperous banker David Stewart. His new and wealthy wife did not solve his financial problems by taking over his debts; in 1895 Bierstadt’s entire property, including 150 paintings, was sold to satisfy his creditors. Nonetheless, the artist’s life did not end in poverty; he still traveled to Europe (1895, 1896, and 1897); he and his wife lived on Fifth Avenue in New York; and he continued to paint, although at a slower rate. At his death in 1902, Bierstadt left behind a huge body of work, of which nearly 300 items have been located by his biographer Gordon Hendricks.