Albert Bierstadt
Albert Bierstadt by Napoleon Sarony
Born(1830-01-07)January 7, 1830
DiedFebruary 18, 1902(1902-02-18) (aged 72)
EducationDüsseldorf School
Known forPainting
Notable workList of works
MovementHudson River School

Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902) was a German American painter best known for his lavish, sweeping landscapes of the American West. He joined several journeys of the Westward Expansion to paint the scenes. He was not the first artist to record the sites, but he was the foremost painter of them for the remainder of the 19th century.

Bierstadt was born in Prussia, but his family moved to the United States when he was one year old. He returned to study painting for several years in Düsseldorf. He became part of the second generation of the Hudson River School in New York, an informal group of like-minded painters who started painting along the Hudson River. Their style was based on carefully detailed paintings with romantic, almost glowing lighting, sometimes called luminism. Bierstadt was an important interpreter of the western landscape, and he is also grouped with the Rocky Mountain School.[1]

Early life and education

Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Rhine Province, Prussia on January 7, 1830. He was the son of Christina M. (Tillmans) and Henry Bierstadt, a cooper.[2] His older brothers were prominent stereo view photographers Edward Bierstadt and Charles Bierstadt. Albert was just a year old when his family immigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1831. He made clever crayon sketches in his youth and developed a taste for art.[3]

In 1851, Bierstadt began to paint in oils.[3] 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.[4]


Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Rocky Mountain Landscape, 1870, White House, Washington, D.C.

In 1858, Bierstadt 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.[4] Bierstadt began painting scenes in New England and upstate New York, including in the Hudson River Valley. He was part of a group of artists known as the Hudson River School.

In 1859, Bierstadt traveled westward in the company of Frederick W. Lander, a land surveyor for the U.S. government, to see those western American landscapes for his work.[5] He returned to a studio he had taken at the Tenth Street Studio Building in New York with sketches for numerous paintings he then finished. In 1860, he was elected a member of the National Academy of Design; he received medals in Austria, Bavaria, Belgium, and Germany.[6][unreliable source?]

In 1863, Bierstadt traveled West again, this time in the company of the author Fitz Hugh Ludlow, whose wife he later married. The pair spent seven weeks in the Yosemite Valley. Throughout the 1860s, Bierstadt used studies from this trip as the source for large-scale paintings for exhibition and he continued to visit the American West throughout his career.[7] The immense canvases he produced after his trips with Lander and Ludlow established him as the preeminent painter of the western American landscape.[8] Bierstadt's technical proficiency, earned through his study of European landscape, was crucial to his success as a painter of the American West and accounted for his popularity in disseminating views of the Rocky Mountains to those who had not seen them.[8]

During the American Civil War (1861 to 1865), Bierstadt was drafted in 1863 and paid for a substitute to serve in his place. By 1862, he had completed one Civil War painting Guerrilla Warfare, Civil War based on his brief experiences with soldiers stationed at Camp Cameron in 1861.[9] That painting was based on a stereoscopic photograph taken by his brother Edward Bierstadt, who operated a photography studio at Langley's Tavern in Virginia. The 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 observed that the 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 experience."[9]

The Last of the Buffalo (1888), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Financial recognition confirmed his status: The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, completed in 1863, was purchased for $25,000 in 1865,[10] the equivalent of almost $400,000 in 2020.

In 1867, Bierstadt returned to Europe, arriving in London where he exhibited two landscape paintings in a private reception with Queen Victoria.[8] He then travelled through Europe for the next two years, painting new works while also cultivating social and business contacts to sustain the market for his art on the continent.[8] For example, he painted Among the Sierra Nevada, California in his Rome studio, displaying it in Berlin and London before having it shipped to the U.S.[11] His exhibition pieces both impressed European audiences and furthered the idea of the American West as a land of promise during a period when European emigration to the U.S. was increasing. Bierstadt's choice of grandiose 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."[11]

Bierstadt's popularity in the U.S. remained strong during his European tour. The publicity generated by his Yosemite Valley paintings in 1868 led a number of explorers to request his presence as part of their westward expeditions. The Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad also commissioned him to visit and paint the Grand Canyon and surrounding region.[12]

Rosalie Bierstadt, unknown date

Despite his popular success, Bierstadt was criticized by some contemporaries for the romanticism evident in his choice of subjects and for his use of light, which they found excessive. Some critics objected to Bierstadt's paintings of Native Americans based on their belief that including Indigenous Americans "marred" the "impression of solitary grandeur."[7]

His wife, Rosalie, was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1876, and Bierstadt spent increasing amounts of time with her in the warmer climate of Nassau in the Bahamas until her death in 1893. He also maintained travel between the western United States, Canada, and his studio in New York.[8]

Though his painting career continued later into his life, Bierstadt's work fell increasingly out of critical favor and was increasingly attacked for its theatrical tone.[8] In 1882, a fire destroyed Bierstadt's studio at Irvington, New York and, with it, many of his paintings.[3]

Albert Bierstadt in an early color photograph by his brother Edward Bierstadt, c. 1895

Bierstadt was a prolific artist, having completed over 500 paintings during his lifetime.[13] Yet by the time of his death on February 18, 1902,[14] the taste for epic landscape painting had long since subsided. Bierstadt was buried at the Rural Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts[2] and remained largely forgotten for nearly 60 years.[8]

Posthumous reception

Interest in Bierstadt's work was renewed in the 1960s with the exhibition of his small oil studies.[8] Modern opinions of Bierstadt have been divided. Some critics have regarded his work as gaudy, oversized, extravagant champions of Manifest Destiny. Others have noted that his landscapes helped create support for the conservation movement and the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.[7] His work has been placed in a favorable context, as stated in 1987:

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.[15]

On the other hand, his work has also been criticized as largely an imaginary depiction of nature, and even "soulless" in its execution.[16]

Existing work

Main article: List of works by Albert Bierstadt

Selected paintings

Legacy and honors

Bierstadt Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park


  1. ^ "Picturing America's Natural Cathedrals". Retrieved May 20, 2012.
  2. ^ a b Garraty, John Arthur; Carnes, Mark Christopher; Societies, American Council of Learned (March 29, 1999). American National Biography: Baker-Blatch. Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780195127812 – via Google Books.
  3. ^ a b c Wilson, J. G.; Fiske, J., eds. (1900). "Bierstadt, Albert" . Appletons' Cyclopædia of American Biography. New York: D. Appleton.
  4. ^ a b "Artist Info".
  5. ^ Mount Corcoran National Gallery of Art, retrieved September 14, 2018
  6. ^ Reynolds, Francis J., ed. (1921). "Bierstadt, Albert" . Collier's New Encyclopedia. New York: P. F. Collier & Son Company.
  7. ^ a b c Hassrick, Peter H. (Spring 2018). "Art, Agency, and Conservation: A Fresh Look at Albert Bierstadt's Vision of the West". Montana The Magazine of Western History. 68 (1).
  8. ^ a b Harvey, Eleanor Jones (2012). The Civil War and American Art. Smithsonian American Art Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Art. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-18733-5.
  9. ^ "Albert Bierstadt: The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (07.123) – Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History – The Metropolitan Museum of Art".
  10. ^ a b "Among the Sierra Nevada, California by Albert Bierstadt / Exhibition Label". Smithsonian American Art Museum. 2006.
  11. ^ Barringer and Wilton, 250
  12. ^ Glenda Moore (September 9, 2004). "". Retrieved December 19, 2012.
  13. ^ Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bierstadt, Albert" . Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 3 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press.
  14. ^ Howat, John K., editor. American Paradise: The World of the Hudson River School, 284. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1987. ISBN 9780870994975
  15. ^ Brenson, Michael (February 8, 1991). "Reviews/Art; He Painted the West That America Wanted". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved August 1, 2022.
  16. ^ "Albert Bierstadt: The Wolf River, Kansas (61.28) — The Detroit Institute of Arts". Archived from the original on February 23, 2009. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  17. ^ "Echo Lake, Franconia Mountains, New Hampshire / North American / Art of the Americas / Highlights By Category / Collection Highlights / Collections / Smith College Museum of Art – Smith College Museum of Art". Archived from the original on March 22, 2012. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  18. ^ "Home / Smith College Museum of Art – Smith College Museum of Art". Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  19. ^ "Cho-looke, the Yosemite Fall, 1864". Timken Museum of Art. Archived from the original on February 21, 2009.
  20. ^ "Valley of the Yosemite". Retrieved May 31, 2014.
  21. ^ "Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California | Birmingham Museum of Art". June 16, 2023. Retrieved June 18, 2023.
  22. ^ "Yosemite Valley". October 31, 2018.
  23. ^ "In the Sierras". Harvard Art Museums. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  24. ^ "Among the Sierra Nevada, California". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Archived from the original on June 1, 2014. Retrieved May 31, 2014.
  25. ^ "Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast". Seattle Art Museum. Archived from the original on August 1, 2017. Retrieved July 31, 2017.
  26. ^ "St. Johnsbury Athenaeum>>This Week from the Gallery Archives". Archived from the original on September 27, 2013. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  27. ^ "Mount Corcoran | Corcoran". Archived from the original on May 18, 2013. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  28. ^ "The Last of the Buffalo | Corcoran". Archived from the original on May 18, 2013. Retrieved July 5, 2013.
  29. ^ "Alaskan Coast Range". Smithsonian American Art Museum. Archived from the original on May 2, 2014. Retrieved May 31, 2014.
  30. ^ "Valley Fine Art". Valley Fine Art Gallery. Retrieved March 2, 2015.
  31. ^ William Newton Byers, Bierstadt's Visit to Colorado: Sketching for the famous painting, "Storm in the Rocky Mountains", Magazine of Western History, Vol. 11, No. 3, Jan. 1890; page 237-240.
  32. ^ "". July 9, 2010. Retrieved May 20, 2012.
  33. ^ "The Postal Store @". March 28, 2011. Retrieved May 20, 2012.

Further reading