Albert Bierstadt: The Landscape Master

An intrepid explorer, an artistic observer of and active participant in Western Expansion, the migration of adventurers and settlers from the U.S. eastern seaboard into the lands of plenty in the American West.

23rd June 2016 | Words by J.J. Jones

Albert Bierstadt's adventures took him through sweeping landscapes, majestic mountain ranges, rugged coast lines and stormy seas. A captivating wayfarer and globetrotter, he would became one of America’s best known artists. Recording his travels through uncharted territories in beautiful and inspiring oil paintings, Albert Bierstadt did it all well before the advent of high tech climbing equipment, mobile phones and GPS. One certainly had to use their own intuition and sense of direction to get around in those days.

Albert Bierstadt, Mount Corcoran
Mount Corcoran, in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, California.

Today his work bears relevance for the explorer, mountain climber, trekker, camper and anyone who loves enchanting landscapes and wild, open spaces. Adventurers will recognise many of the places depicted in his paintings, including the Rocky Mountains, the Redwood Forests, the Great Plains, Niagara Falls, Alaska, and California and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Later Bierstadt traveled through Switzerland, Bavaria, Italy and Belgium.

The Oregon Trail, Albert Bierstadt
The Oregon Trail

Bierstadt's primary purpose as an artist was to stimulate interest in mountains, coastal waters, shore lines, vast plains and the indigenous wildlife of both America and Europe. He brought America’s majestic lands to people who would otherwise never have the opportunity to experience the vistas he enjoyed. His creations in oil between 1856 and 1900 became sought after enough that he made a very good living as a painter.

Saint Antony’s Falls
Saint Antony’s Falls as painted by Bierstadt.
Saint Antony’s Falls
Saint Antony’s Falls today.

Born in Germany but brought to the United States at the age of one, Bierstadt honed his drawing skills by his teenage years, something Renaissance artists both north and south of the Italian Alps insisted on. In 1853 at the age of 23 he returned to Germany to be trained in the fine arts. Although training at the Academy of Art in Dusseldorf was informal, his knowledge and use of Renaissance methods is evident.

Map of Albert Bierstadt's journey across the American West
Map of Albert Bierstadt's journey across the American West in 1859 and 1863. The 1859 route is represented by a broken line while the 1863 route is shown as a dotted line. (Wikipedia)

Returning to the states in 1857, Bierstadt set his sights westward. The drawings and sketches he made on his travels would become the large and splendid paintings we know and love today. Bierstadt’s work certainly paid homage to ‘manifest destiny’ - the widely held belief that the United States was destined for coast-to-coast expansion and settlement. Although this would come at the expense of Native Americans, his paintings depicting them in situ delighted his audience.

Indians Spear Fishing, Albert Bierstadt
Indians Spear Fishing

Training techniques varied very little from academy to academy. Drawing was well-established as basic training practice in art academies, as was the copying of early masterpieces as practical exercises for handling light and shade, juxtaposition, prospective and overall proportions of the content (rule of three). It is evident through his work that Bierstad’s he was an expert in these technical methods and able to arrive at a flowing seductive whole in his landscapes.

The Shore of the Turquoise Sea, Albert Bierstadt
The Shore of the Turquoise Sea

The Shore of the Turquoise Sea includes contrasting, juxtaposition, perspective and the rule of three techniques. The canvas is divided into three section: 1) Foreground, 2) Detail and perspective lines in the middle section, and 3) Sky and horizon. Bierstadt’s uses this rule of three format, juxtaposition and contrast with perspective time and again; it conveys the drama and emotion of vastness - of seas, plains and mountains.

Lake Lucerne, Albert Bierstadt
Lake Lucerne
Guerrilla Warfare. Picket Duty in Virginia 1862, Albert Bierstadt
Guerrilla Warfare. Picket Duty in Virginia 1862

J.J. Jones is an art historian that delights in finding the unusual and writing about it.


Images: 1-4: Public domain; 5, 6: Wikipedia; 7-10: Public domain

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