Albert Bierstadt Biography

Albert BierstadtAlbert Bierstadt wasn't born in the United States, but he is one of the best known, and most admired, of the American painters. His use of gorgeous color, diffused light and sharply outlined foreground characters, all executed on immensely sized canvases, made him popular in his own time, and extremely popular now.


Albert Bierstadt was born in 1830 near Dusseldorf, Germany. His family moved to Massachusetts when Albert was 2 years old. Bierstadt wasn't particularly interested in art when he was a young boy, and received no special training in his youth. The first Bierstadt painting was executed when he was 21 years old, in fact. But this painting was inspiring to Bierstadt, and he chose to expand his artistic education by returning to Germany to enroll in the Royal Academy. Here, he studied with landscape painters Karl Friedman Lessing and Andreas Aschenbach. Bierstadt would travel extensively through Italy and Europe as part of his education, studying older paintings and learning how to create accurate perspective and how to manipulate light and color. This education set the stage for later Albert Bierstadt paintings, all executed with a high degree of skill and a not-so-subtle nod to the techniques employed by the old-world masters.


Bierstadt returned to the United States in 1857, determined to apply the skills he'd mastered to scenes in the West. Bierstadt paintings from this time period were mainly executed in New Hampshire, near the artist's home. In 1858, Albert Bierstadt's paintings were shown as part of an exhibit in the National Academy of Design in New York. Bierstadt entered 14 pieces into the show, one of which was painted on the largest canvas used in the entire show. This would become a trend in later paintings by Albert Bierstadt. The artist felt that only big canvases could hold the vistas he'd been viewing. In this same year, another Albert Bierstadt painting, The Portico of Octavia, Rome was purchased by a museum in Boston. Albert Bierstadt's painting career had begun.

In 1859, Bierstadt attended a lecture by Bayard Taylor, famous for his travels in the American West. This would prove a pivotal night for Bierstadt. He'd caught the travel bug, and was determined to travel the West and record what he saw. The pristine vistas, rugged terrain and wild vegetation would prove irresistible, and the artist began looking for opportunities to make his vision a reality.

Going West

In 1860, Bierstadt found his chance, and joined a military exhibition headed by Colonel Frederick Lander. The goal of the trip was to record wagon routes in Wyoming and the Rocky Mountains. This would prove a monumental trip for Bierstadt. He would learn that he was an able and willing traveler; despite his posh upbringing, he enjoyed camping and traveling through rough terrain. He also enjoyed meeting and interacting with Native American inhabitants of the land.

During this trip, the Bierstadt Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak painting was generated. This immense painting shows the Rocky Mountains fading to blue in the top of the image. The center of the canvas contains a beautifully highlighted waterfall, perfectly reflected in the water below. Native people and horses populate the bottom of the image, all rendered in great detail. For Bierstadt, Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak would make the entire trip worthwhile. The painting was purchased in 1865 for a record-breaking sum of $25,000.


In 1863, Bierstadt took another trip West, this time with his friend High Ludlow. The two took a trip through Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California and Yosemite. It is likely that Bierstadt brought a camera with him on this long trip. Many Bierstadt paintings began as photographs the artist took. He would develop the images, and use them as preliminary sketches for paintings he would later generate in his studio. Bierstadt was one of the first painters to generate paintings in this way.

The Albert Bierstadt Yosemite paintings would be an immediate sensation when the artist returned home. The large-scale images, showing buffalo, pristine lakes and water, and rugged mountains were shown in San Francisco, and sold nearly immediately.

Bierstadt's fame continued to grow and grow. He was seen as the ideal interpreter and painter of the American West. He was seen as such a hero, that Mount Bierstadt, in Colorado, bears his name to this day. He began to live a comfortable life. He married in 1866, and built a large home near New York for himself and his wife. During the 1860s and 1870s, he was the best-compensated painter in the United States, and he and his wife settled into a tranquil, easy life.


As part of the Hudson River School of painting, Bierstadt's works were large, romantic, well lit and emotional. These were old-fashioned works, relying on the techniques mastered in Italy long ago. The artists of the Hudson River School felt these old techniques helped them best express how the pristine views found in nature helped the common man achieve spiritual bliss. Unfortunately, this method of painting fell out of favor in the 1870s. The large canvases used in Bierstadt paintings began to seem pretentious. The use of light and dark in Bierstadt paintings seemed arcane when compared to new Impressionist works. And suddenly, Bierstadt seemed no longer relevant. While he continued to paint until his death in 1902, his works weren't respected to the same degree, and the painter was largely forgotten.


In the modern era, as landscape preservation comes to the fore of public consciousness, Albert Bierstadt paintings are, again, in high demand. The artist seems to have captured a moment in time, before housing developments, roads and water rights tamed the wild landscape. The luminosity of the images, and the immense scale of the paintings, appeals to modern viewers. In 1998, the Bierstadt painting, The Last of the Buffalo appeared on an American stamp as part of a series of American art. Bierstadt paintings continue to bring high prices at auction.