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Albert Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Prussia, on January 7, 1830, but he spent his early years in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where his parents settled two years after his birth. Henry Bierstadt, the artist's father, found work as a cooper in the capital of America's whaling industry.
Primarily self-taught, Albert Bierstadt began his professional career in 1850 when he advertised his services as a drawing instructor. Three years later he departed for Europe, hoping Johann Peter Hasenclever (1810-1853), a distant relative and prominent member of the Dusseldorf school of artists, would help him obtain formal instruction. Hasenclever died suddenly, however, shortly before Bierstadt's arrival. When Emanuel Leutze (1816-1868) and Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) came to his aid Bierstadt found, unexpectedly, American rather than German mentors.After nearly three years in Dusseldorf, Bierstadt joined Whittredge on an extended sketching tour through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Following a winter in Rome and a sketching tour to Naples and Capri, Bierstadt returned to New Bedford in the fall of 1857. Described as a "timid, awkward, unpolished specimen of a Yankee" when he arrived in Dusseldorf in 1853, Bierstadt returned to New Bedford four years later a socially poised and technically mature painter.
In the spring of 1858 he made his New York debut when he contributed a large painting of Lake Lucerne and the Swiss Alps to the annual exhibition at the National Academy of Design. Critics were dazzled by Bierstadt's technical expertise; within weeks he was elected an honorary member of the academy.
Bierstadt's European apprenticeship served him well the following spring when he journeyed west for the first time, joining Frederick W. Lander's survey party bound for the Rocky Mountains. Though not the first artist to see or even paint the Rockies, Bierstadt was the first who brought with him superior technical skills and considerable experience painting European alpine peaks. For Americans eager to finally see the mountains a generation of travelers had described as "America's alps," Bierstadt's credentials were near perfect.
By late September 1858 Bierstadt had returned to New Bedford laden with field sketches, stereo photographs, and Indian artifacts. Within three months he had moved to New York, established himself in the Tenth Street Studio Building, and begun to exhibit the western paintings that would soon make his reputation. He completed the most important of these, The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (Metropolitan Museum, New York), in the spring of 1863 just weeks before he set off on his second journey west.
Accompanied by Fitz Hugh Ludlow, a celebrated writer who later published a book about their overland adventure, Bierstadt traveled to the Pacific Coast. He spent several weeks in Yosemite Valley completing the plein air studies he would later use to compose several of his most important paintings. Following a trip north through Oregon to the Columbia River, Bierstadt and Ludlow returned east. Utilizing studies gathered during all stages of his journey, Bierstadt completed, by the end of the decade, a remarkable series of large scale paintings that not only secured his position as the premier painter of the western American landscape but also offered a war-torn nation a golden image of their own Promised Land.
In 1867 Bierstadt and his bride set sail for London. It was a triumphant return for the emigrant's son who had arrived in Europe fourteen years earlier an eager but impoverished student. Six months after his arrival Bierstadt was invited to exhibit two of his most important paintings (both of which had been purchased by English railroad entrepreneurs), privately before Queen Victoria. During the more than two years he remained abroad, Bierstadt traveled, sketched, and cultivated the friendships that would sustain a European market for his work for many years.
In July 1871, Bierstadt and his wife boarded the recently completed transcontinental railroad bound for San Francisco. Apart from the artist's brief return to New York that autumn, they remained in California until October 1873. As he had since his days in Dusseldorf, Bierstadt spent much of his time traveling in remote regions completing the field studies he would later use to compose studio paintings.
In the fall of 1876 Rosalie Bierstadt, who had been diagnosed as consumptive and advised to spend the winter months in a warm climate, made her first trip to Nassau. Until her death in 1893, Rosalie spent increasingly longer periods in Nassau. Though Bierstadt continued to maintain his New York studio and travel widely in the West and Canada, he found new subject matter in the tropics during visits with his wife. In 1880 he exhibited one of the most successful of these pictures, The Shore of the Turquoise Sea (Private Collection), at the National Academy of Design. Though praised by some, the painting drew fire from critics who had found fault with his "theatrics" as early as the 1860s.
Critical disfavor and a falling market plagued Bierstadt during his later years. The most telling blow came in 1889 when the American committee charged with selecting works for the Exposition Universelle in Paris rejected Bierstadt's entry, The Last of the Buffalo (Corcoran Gallery of Art). Described as too large but more likely judged old-fashioned, the painting marked the end of Bierstadt's series of monumental western landscapes.
Bierstadt died suddenly in New York on February 18, 1902, largely forgotten. Ironically, renewed interest in his work was sparked by a series of exhibitions in the 1960s highlighting not the great western paintings but rather the small oil sketches he had used as "color notes" for the panoramic landscapes that had brought him such success in the 1860s. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
The German-born Albert Bierstadt became one of the foremost painters of the American West in the nineteenth century. After immigrating with his family to Massachusetts at the age of two, he returned to Germany as a young man to pursue his art. He chose the Dusseldorf Academy not only because of his own heritage but also for its preeminence at the time as a leading European center for genre, history, and landscape painting.
Bierstadt made his first trip west in 1859 with the express purpose of studying the region and Indian life to gather facts for a series of large paintings. The resulting works, finished in his New York studio, were a major success, and as early as March 1862 he expressed interest in another western expedition. This venture did not materialize, but in the spring of 1863 he and his friend Fitz Hugh Ludlow, a New York Post critic, began a journey that ultimately took them to California by way of Utah. Bierstadt made studies continually en route, and Ludlow kept a detailed written account of their experiences that was eventually published.
During yet another western journey of 1881, Bierstadt again visited Salt Lake City on his way to join a small expeditionary party headed for Yellowstone. This work was probably painted at that time and stylistically resembles works of that year done in Yellowstone. The painting depicts a southeast view of the city from Capitol Hill (then called Arsenal Hill). Small in scale and loosely painted, it was probably done as an oil study on the spot. The painting is also comparable in size to other small oil studies on paper from the 1881 trip that measure 14 x 19 inches, a size that could conveniently fit into his color box.
It has generally been assumed that this painting, as well as Near Salt Lake City, Utah, was painted during Bierstadt's 1863 trip with Ludlow, but several factors dispute the accuracy of this date for either painting. In Salt Lake City, Wasatch Mountains, Uinta Range, the discrepancy results from the prominent building to the far right middle ground. There was no such structure in downtown Salt Lake City in 1863. It cannot be positively identified but closely resembles the J. R. Walker house, which was not built until 1867.1 That Bierstadt would have inserted a nonexistent structure in an otherwise unidealized reportorial painting seems implausible.
The Indian in the foreground of this Salt Lake City view looks "stuck on" and may have been an afterthought. Bierstadt found the Indians "appropriate adjuncts to the scenery" and in a rare showing of sympathy for their plight at the onset of his career in 1859 wrote: "Now is the time to paint them for they are rapidly passing away and soon will be known only in history."2 However, the slumped, unceremonious posture of this Indian is characteristic of his other Indian sketches, which reveal little of the grace and primitive beauty that George Catlin, for example, saw in them. Beyond the distracting figure of the Indian, the painting's real subject emerges--the sunlit Wasatch Mountains. Bierstadt, who made a career of painting grandiose mountain scenery, was undoubtedly as enamored with Utah's Wasatch and Oquirrh mountains as was Ludlow. In 1863, before their departure from Salt Lake City, the journalist wrote:
The effect of the snow lying in the lofty valleys between the mountaintops of the Wahsatch and the pure red lustre of the Wahsatch itself, in the twilight reßections from the brilliant heaven over the Oquirrh...was a sight of such magical beauty as no pen or brush can hope to paint, no heart that it has filled with ecstasy can ever forget
When Bierstadt was about three years old, his family moved from Germany to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He returned to Dusseldorf, Germany between 1853 and 1857 to study painting. On his return to the United States, he organized an exhibition in New Bedford of 150 paintings, including works of all the major artists of his day. In December, 1857 the Boston Athenaeum bought one of his works, The Portico of Octavia Rome, thus assuring his career.
Bierstadt always loved mountains, and he visited the White Mountains before he left for Düsseldorf, for his signature appears in the register on top of Mount Washington on August 11, 1852. He returned at various times from 1858 to 1886. Sometime in 1859 or 1860, Bierstadt visited New Hampshire with his brother, Edward, working in the then new medium of photography. He stayed at the Conway House in Conway, listing himself as "A. Bierstadt, New York," on September 13, 1862. He also spent considerable time at the Glen House in 1869 while at work on Emerald Pool, which he considered his finest work.
He exhibited at the Boston Athenaeum from 1859 to 1864,at the Brooklyn Art Association from 1861 to 1879, and at the Boston Art Club from 1873 to 1880. A member of the National Academy of Design from 1860 to 1902, he kept a studio in the 10th Street Studio Building, New York City from 1861 to 1879. He was a member of the Century Association from 1862 to 1902.
Bierstadt became internationally reknowned for his beautiful and enormous
paintings of the newly accessible American west, and his works found their
way into public and private collections at staggeringly high prices for
his time. His popularity and wealth rose to tremendous heights only
to fade as the interest in the Boston School and impressionism turned public
taste away from his highly detailed landscapes suffused with golden light.
By 1895 he declared himself bankrupt.
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