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7 September 2022

Albert Bierstadt unveiled the epic vistas of the American West

The German-born painter cast light on the extraordinary beauty of his adopted homeland.

By Michael Prodger

It took a foreign-born painter to show Americans the greatest wonders of their land. Despite the doctrine of “manifest destiny”, the belief that everything – landscapes, animals and the indigenous peoples – was subject to the will of westward-pushing white settlers, the majority of mid-19th-century East Coasters had little idea of the majesty of the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada or Yosemite. The grandeur of such places was revealed to them by Albert Bierstadt, a painter awestruck by natural beauty. “Truly all is remarkable and a wellspring of amazement and wonder,” he said. “Man is so fortunate to dwell in this American Garden of Eden.”

Bierstadt (1830-1902) was well qualified as a judge of Edens because he was familiar with the marvels of the old world as well as the new. Although he was born in Germany, near Düsseldorf, his family moved to Massachusetts when he was a year old, where his father, a cooper, worked in the whaling industry. In 1853, aged 23, Bierstadt, a “timid, awkward, unpolished specimen of a Yankee”, returned to Düsseldorf to train as a painter. He was going to seek instruction from Peter Hasenclever, a painter relative of his mother, but his would-be master died while Bierstadt was mid-Atlantic. Instead he was mentored by a pair of artists from home, the German-American Emanuel Leutze (the man responsible for the celebrated 1851 image of Washington Crossing the Delaware) and the Hudson River School painter Worthington Whittredge.

With their help and that of other Düsseldorf artists who together formed a loose school known as the Malkasten (paint box), Bierstadt progressed so quickly that some of the paintings he sent back to the United States were thought to be by Whittredge, and it took a string of letters from his Germany-based friends to prove his authorship. After three years of study, Bierstadt joined Whittredge on a sketching tour that took in not just Italy but, importantly for his future career, Switzerland and the southern German Alps.

On his return to the US it was a painting of a Swiss scene, exhibited at the National Academy of Design, that first won him favourable attention. And Europe’s mountain scenery was fresh in his mind when, in 1859, he joined a government survey party under Frederick W Lander heading for the Rockies in search of a new railway route. The oil sketches and stereo-photographs (his brothers Edward and Charles were both eminent photographers) made on the trip formed the basis for a series of huge panoramas that quickly gained Bierstadt a high reputation and fees to match.

In paintings such as The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863), he unveiled the epic vistas of the American West and discovered a formula that encapsulated the prelapsarian nature of these realms. A calm foreground, often populated with native Americans or animals, would lead the eye in stages via lakes, rivers, waterfalls and forests to distant vertiginous peaks. He would unify the scene with atmospheric effects – storms or ethereal light – that frequently tipped into the theatrical. Indeed, Mark Twain criticised this tendency, writing wryly that “Some of Mr Bierstadt’s mountains swim in a lustrous pearly mist, which is so enchantingly beautiful that I am sorry the Creator hadn’t made it instead”, and calling his The Domes of Yosemite (1867), “very beautiful, considerably more beautiful than the original”.

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Twain’s snark notwithstanding, the public appetite for Bierstadt’s work was voracious. His immersive pictures – often more than three metres wide – commanded huge sums, and on a trip to England in 1867 he was invited to a private audience with Queen Victoria to show off two of his works. Meanwhile, Among the Sierra Mountains, California, painted in Rome that winter, was exhibited at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition and later in Berlin, Paris, Moscow and St Petersburg. The picture, a visionary confection of silvery mountains, cloud, sunlight and water, has been credited with encouraging European emigration to the US.

To raise the profile and price of a painting, Bierstadt would leak stories about it to the press, sell tickets for its exhibition and, inviting his audience into a darkened room, unveil it with a flourish from behind velvet curtains. This astute Barnum side to his practice did not always play well with his critics, who accused him of bolstering his art with the “vast machinery of advertisement and puffery”.

Nevertheless, Bierstadt made several other trips out West. The second – in his words, “in search of a subject for a great Rocky Mountain picture” – was with the photographer and hashish addict Fitz Hugh Ludlow, whose wife Rosalie, Bierstadt would go on to marry. The eight-month expedition was arduous and in an 1890 edition of the Magazine of Western History William Newton Byers, who guided Bierstadt on a supplementary excursion, left an account of both the hardships involved and the painter’s almost ecstatic response to what he saw.

Byers and Bierstadt had spent a wet and trying day near Idaho Springs (“His enthusiasm was badly dampened”) when they debouched from the forest at a spot known to Byers, who stood aside to watch Bierstadt’s reaction as he emerged and saw the view: “He said nothing, but his face was a picture of intense life and excitement. Taking in the view for a moment, he slid off his mule, glanced quickly to see where the jack was that carried his paint outfit, walked sideways to it and began fumbling at the lash-ropes, all the time keeping his eyes on the scene up the valley. I told him I would get out his things, and proceeded to do so. As he went to work he said, ‘I must get a study in colours; it will take me 15 minutes!’ He said nothing more.”

In fact, Bierstatdt worked feverishly for 45 minutes, and then headed up the valley to make further sketches, only stopping to tickle trout – 18 of them – for their supper. This picture, A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt Rosalie (1866), now in the Brooklyn Museum, was the major work to emerge from the expedition. In its over-egged way it captures the almost hallucinatory atmosphere that greeted the painter, a near biblical revelation of drama and sublimity with clouds “so low that they were being torn and riven” by the mountain points and broken clouds driven “in rolling masses through the storm-drift”. This bravura piece of work sold for the enormous sum of $20,000.

The distant peak, shown far more dagger-like than in reality, was named by Bierstadt in favour of his wife-to-be but the honour didn’t last; it was later renamed Mount Evans after a governor of Colorado (and is shortly to be rechristened Mount Blue Sky). Bierstadt’s happiness and fame proved transient too. In 1876 Rosalie started to show the first effects of tuberculosis and was advised to pass the winter months in Nassau in the Bahamas, where Bierstadt would visit her and paint the very different local scenery. Then, in 1882, a fire destroyed his house and studio overlooking the Hudson River, taking many of his paintings with it. When Rosalie died in 1893, aged 52, he was devastated. Her death coincided with a decline in critical acclaim which had become apparent when the committee charged with selecting US works for the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris rejected his cinematic painting of a native American hunting expedition, The Last of the Buffalo.

This was a painting that encapsulated his conviction that: “Christ is one with His creatures and so man must treat his fellow creatures as Christ would. The continual slaughter of native species must be halted before all is lost.” Ironically, by advertising the natural wonders of the American west, Bierstadt had inadvertently endangered them too.

[See also: Eric Ravilious’s visions of war and peace in England]

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This article appears in the 07 Sep 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Liz Truss Unchained