One of the first artists to use a camera to record landscape views, Albert Bierstadt also sought to convey in his paintings the monumental grandeur of the landscape of the far West. Bierstadt was born in 1830 in the small town of Solingen, near Dusseldorf in Germany. His family immigrated to the United States when he was two years old and he grew up in New Bedford, Massachusetts. In 1853, Bierstadt returned to Dusseldorf and studied under the landscape painters Andreas Aschenbach and Karl Friedman Lessing. Under the influence of the Dusseldorf school, Bierstadt learned to develop the attention for detail and the atmospheric perspective for which he is so well known.
He returned to America in 1857 and joined a western military expedition led by Colonel Frederick W. Lander to survey wagon routes in the Rocky Mountains and Wyoming. From sketches, he later painted in his Tenth Street Studio New York landscapes, Indians, and wildlife in the traditional style he had learned in Europe. He was also elected a member of the National Academy. However, Bierstadt did not forget the grandeur he saw in the West. Throughout his lifetime, he traveled back and forth across the continent, as well as to Europe with his wife Rosalie.
After the Civil War, Bierstadt enjoyed his greatest popularity as a painter of what was then termed the “unblemished grandeur” of the western landscape. His reputation introduced him to many famous people of the time, including the poet Robert Longfellow, the Grand Duke Alexis of Russia, and President Rutherford Hayes. In the 1860s and 70s, Bierstadt earned the highest prices ever achieved by an American painter, and the United States Congress allotted $20,000 for one of his paintings.
In 1867, he had a grand tour of Europe and England, including a special audience with Queen Victoria. His painting “Among the Sierra Mountains, California” was exhibited at the Royal Academy with mixed reactions, as some thought it overtaxed the viewers’ minds and imaginations. He received the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by Napoleon III and the Order of the Stanislaus from the Czar of the Russias.
At this time, Bierstadt was perhaps the most successful and renowned painter in America, rivaled only perhaps by Frederic Church. However, by the early 1880s, his fortunes were waning as the art-loving public turned increasingly towards more modern modes of expression.
His oil paintings, many of them huge, were the ultimate expression of the popular 19th-century Romanticism. But his reputation diminished when public taste in art changed dramatically and when transcontinental railway travel revealed that the West looked nothing like his idealized paintings. Sadly, Bierstadt lived long enough to see his romantic, grandiose and highly detailed paintings of the Western landscape go out of favor, replaced by more the adventurous and modern sorts of painting, and he died an all but forgotten figure.
Reference: “The American West: Legendary Artists of the Frontier”, edited by Dr. Rick Stewart, AskArt.com