ALBERT BIERSTADT (1830-1902)
written by David M. Delo
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), was the 19th Century American painter who introduced the drama and sublimity of the Rocky Mountains and Yosemite to the world through six-foot by ten-foot drawing room paintings. Initially, his life was a rags-to-riches saga, a great American success story -- the rise of a talented, ambitious, self-made man who dedicated himself to his art, and who, by employing sharp entrepreneurial skills, became the highest-paid living painter in America during his life.
As an artist who matured during the tradition of Transcendentalism, Bierstadt endowed his images with the romantic, the beautiful, and the sublime. His glorification of nature helped to lift American's spirits and reaffirm emigrant hopes that the West was everything that trapper's tales had made it. His paintings were reflections of his feeling toward untrammeled nature as the creation of god yet viewed as mythic, full of symbolism.
Talent, focus, energy, and diligence aside, Albert Bierstadt was the right man at the right place at the right time with the right goods. When he returned from Europe in 1857, detailed landscapes were the rage in America. The nouveau riche began to collect American art for their private galleries and what we now call the Hudson River School of art was in vogue. Within three years, he dominated the New York art scene with huge paint-ings of the Rocky Mountains.
Bierstadt, a workaholic, was one of the artist-adventurers who arrived first on many new scenes. He knocked out scores of plein air oil sketches for his larger masterpieces, capturing California's sea lions and its big trees, Rocky Mountain thunderstorms, emerald pools in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the translucence of tropical waves of the Bahamas.
While other nationally-noted Hudson River School painters like Worthington Whittredge, Sanford Gifford, and John Kensett received $500 to $1,500 for a painting, Albert Bierstadt was selling his panoramic canvases for $15,000, $20,000, and $25,000 ($250,000 in today's buying power).
Bierstadt decided that to remain on top -- to continue to command top prices -- he would have to adopt a cosmopolitan lifestyle. Between 1865 and 1875, Bierstadt the man and his works became prizes to be glimpsed. While his paintings became the most sought-after since Turner, Bierstadt -- a handsome, powerful, and daring man -- became an haute bourgeoisie. He was the first American artist to command the attention of the European art world. He hobnobbed with royalty, was exhibited internationally, received honors from Russia, France, England, Germany, and Turkey, and was extravagantly admired.
He aggressively pursued lucrative commissions from entrepreneurs, railroad magnates, Dukes, and Queens. He and his dazzling younger wife Rosalie had the energy and the personalities to succeed. With facile grace and charm, they looked and acted as radiant and as grand as his pictures. At the height of his fame, Bierstadt's name was equated with the biggest and the best in both America and Europe.
American patrons and businessmen cheered his ingenuity, his shrewdness, and his self-command -- attributes attached to entrepreneurs. American art critics and columnists, however, were outraged at his promotional posturing. As the mid-1870s approached, the din of criticism about the "Dusseldorf painter" rose until his works were more derided than they were praised. Many attacks came from those who had never seen the subjects Bierstadt introduced on canvas, and from those who envied his success. Yet half came from those who correctly saw that the art world was rapidly moving away from everything Bierstadt and his paintings represented.
By 1876, the time of the great American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the changing world of art swept over Bierstadt like a tide over a rock. French Impressionism was coming. Adamant in his choice of subject, composition, and technique, he was left in the wake of a changing world. He had chosen to create the awe-inspiring and the inspirational, based on tightly woven compositions whose energy was rooted in chiaroscuro and romantic realism. To suddenly abandon a pattern that had provided him a fortune to consider a new set of painterly concepts was beyond his grasp -- particularly when he desperately needed income.
The last decades of Bierstadt's life were punctuated by a series of personal and professional disasters. His young wife Rosalie contracted consumption in her mid-thirties. From 1877 until her death in 1893, she spent a progressive number of months every year at the Royal Queen Victoria Hotel in the Bahamas. In 1882, his palatial home, Malkasten, was destroyed by a fire which also consumed hundreds of oil sketches and large paintings, personal correspondence, and a lifetime collection of western objects. American art committees began to reject his exhibition entries. Two years after the death of his wife, the backwash of debt from a life of living on the edge forced him to have a sheriff's sale. Bierstadt retired, remarried, and painted quietly for himself. By his death in 1902, the art world had forgotten him.
Albert Bierstadt's life, in an uncanny manner, parallels the cycle of the Hero (Joseph Campbell, Hero of a Thousand Faces). First was the youth whose passion for nature caught fire in Dusseldorf, then the hardly mature artist who experienced the headiness of being the most sought-after and highest paid artist in America. Success, love, and recognition was his; then, by the age of 50, he tasted the bitterness of being rejected by those who had once cheered him.
Today Albert Bierstadt's field sketches sell for five and six figures and some of his drawing room paintings for millions. But it took a full century after his death before his skills were given a legitimate niche in American art history.
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Delo is writing a historical biography, a la Irving Stone, of the life of Albert Bierstadt.
(Permission was given by Mr. Delo to use his article on this website)