Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18,
1902) was an American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes
of the American West. To paint the scenes, Bierstadt joined several journeys
of the Westward Expansion. Though not the first artist to record these sites,
Bierstadt was the foremost painter of these scenes for the remainder of the
Born in Germany, Bierstadt was brought to the United States at the age of one by
his parents. He later returned to study painting for several years in Düsseldorf.
He became part of the Hudson River School in New York, an informal group of
like-minded painters who started painting along this scenic river. Their style was
based on carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting,
sometimes called luminism. An important interpreter of the western landscape,
Bierstadt, along with Thomas Moran, is also grouped with the Rocky Mountain
Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Germany. The following year, in 1831, his family
moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. At an early age Bierstadt developed a taste
for art and made clever crayon sketches in his youth. In 1851, he began to paint in
He returned to Germany in 1853 and studied painting for several years in
Düsseldorf with members of its informal school of painting. After returning to New
Bedford in 1857, he taught drawing and painting briefly, before devoting himself
full-time to painting.
In 1858 he exhibited a large painting of a Swiss landscape at the National
Academy of Design, which gained him positive critical reception and honorary
membership in the Academy. At this time Bierstadt began painting scenes in New
England and upstate New York, including in the Hudson River valley. A group of
artists known as the Hudson River School portrayed its majestic landscapes and
craggy areas, as well as the light affected by the changing waters.
In 1859, Bierstadt traveled westward in the company of Frederick W. Lander, a
land surveyor for the U.S. government, to see those landscapes. He returned to a
studio he had taken at the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York with sketches
that would result in numerous finished paintings. In 1863 he traveled west again,
this time in the company of the author Fitz Hugh Ludlow, whose wife he would later
marry. Throughout the 1860s, Bierstadt used studies from this trip as the source
for large-scale paintings for exhibition. He continued to visit the American West
throughout his career.
During the American Civil War, Bierstadt paid for a substitute to serve in his
place when he was drafted in 1863. He completed one Civil War painting Guerrilla
Warfare, Civil War in 1862, based on his brief experiences with soldiers stationed
at Camp Cameron in 1861. Bierstadt's painting was based on a stereoscopic
photograph taken by his brother Edward Bierstadt, who operated a photography studio
at Langley's Tavern in Virginia. Bierstadt's painting received a positive review
when it was exhibited at the Brooklyn Art Association at the Brooklyn Academy of
Music in December 1861. Curator Eleanor Jones Harvey observes that Bierstadt's
painting, created from photographs, "is quintessentially that of a voyeur, privy to
the stories and unblemished by the violence and brutality of first-hand combat
In 1860, he was elected a member of the National Academy; he received medals in
Austria, Bavaria, Belgium, and Germany. In 1867 he traveled to London, where he
exhibited two landscape paintings in a private reception with Queen Victoria. He
traveled through Europe for two years, cultivating social and business contacts to
sustain the market for his work overseas.
A trip to the Yellowstone region in 1871 yielded numerous drawings of the area's
geysers and picturesque topography. These works were instrumental in convincing the
United States Congress to pass the Yellowstone Park Bill in 1872, thus establishing
the first national park in the world. Soon thereafter Congress purchased a large
painting from Bierstadt for $10,000. As a result of the publicity generated by his
Yellowstone paintings, Bierstadt's presence was requested by every explorer
considering a westward expedition, and he was commissioned by the Atchison, Topeka,
and Santa Fe Railroad to visit the Grand Canyon for further subject matter.
Bierstadt's technical proficiency, earned through his study of European
landscape, was crucial to his success as a painter of the American West. It
accounted for his popularity in disseminating views of the Rockies to those who had
not seen them. The immense canvases he produced after his trips with Lander and
Ludlow established him as the preeminent painter of the western American landscape.
Financial recognition confirmed his status: The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak,
completed in 1863, was purchased for $25,000 in 1865.
Despite his popular success, Bierstadt was criticized by some contemporaries for
the romanticism evident in his choices of subject and his use of light was felt to
be excessive. His exhibition pieces were brilliantly crafted images that glorified
the American West as a land of promise. Bierstadt's choice of grandiloquent
subjects was matched by his entrepreneurial flair. His exhibitions of individual
works were accompanied by promotion, ticket sales, and, in the words of one critic,
a "vast machinery of advertisement and puffery."
His wife was diagnosed with consumption in 1876, and from then until her death
in 1893, Bierstadt spent time with her in the warmer climate of Nassau in the
Bahamas. He also continued to travel to the West and Canada. In later life,
Bierstadt's work fell increasingly out of critical favor. It was attacked for its
In 1882 Bierstadt's studio at Irvington, New York, was destroyed by fire,
resulting in the loss of many of his paintings. By the time of his death on
February 18, 1902, the taste for epic landscape painting had long since subsided.
Bierstadt was then largely forgotten. He was buried at the Rural Cemetery in New
Interest in his work was renewed in the 1960s, with the exhibition of his small
oil studies. The subsequent reassessment of Bierstadt's work has placed it in a
The temptation (to criticize him) should be steadfastly resisted. Bierstadt's
theatrical art, fervent sociability, international outlook, and unquenchable
personal energy reflected the epic expansion in every facet of western civilization
during the second half of the nineteenth century.
Bierstadt was a prolific artist, having completed over 500 paintings during his
lifetime. Many of these are held by museums across the United States.