Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 2, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Zaplin / Lampert Gallery. The essay, written in 1998, was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the exhibition Albert Bierstadt held August 7 through September 7, 1998 at Zaplin / Lampert Gallery. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the catalogue please contact Zaplin / Lampert Gallery through either this phone number or website:


For Bierstadt's Eyes Alone

by Mary Terence McKay


Nineteenth-century America epitomized the age of Romanticism. "The great cultural project of the...century was to explore the relations between man and nature.... No previous age had brought such passionate scrutiny...or projected [onto nature] so many human aspirations."[1]

The century had begun on the pure note of transcendental creed. "The age was ocular," mused Ralph Waldo Emerson, but "the health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never so tired as long as we can see far enough."[2] Thus by mid-century, America was fueled by the energy of exploration and empire, an energy which faced westward with prophetic dreams of a Passage to India voiced by the great orators of the day, Thomas Hart Benton and William Gilpin, and intoned in verse by Walt Whitman himself.

The age thus embodied both the real and the ideal, and all of America was caught up in the complexity of these two conflicting paradigms. On the one hand, America regarded herself as a bucolic and pastoral Eden, an Arcadia in which nature was thought to be "the fingerprint of God's creation [and]...a direct clue to his intentions."[3] On the other, she enacted a policy of imperialism dignified by the phrase "Manifest Destiny" implying the inevitable supremacy of America as conqueror of "the western spaces" by divine sanction!

Increasingly, as America strove to reach her potential -- embracing the industrialization which hurtled her toward the age of technology -- the American wilderness moved west and became the West which soon embodied not only America's future but finally American identity itself. Every youth knew Fenimore Cooper's "Leather-Stocking Tales" and dreamed of one day exploring the West like Cooper's frontier scout, Natty Bumppo.

In this conflicted and highly energized world, young Albert Bierstadt, too, dreamed of the West. (Family history purported that at age twelve, he even wrote a school composition on "The Rocky Mountains."[4]) The sixth child of Henry and Christina Bierstadt, Albert was born in 1830 in Solingen, Prussia, a small town close to Düsseldorf. The family immigrated to America when he was two, settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts where his father, a cooper by profession, could find work.

As a young man Bierstadt "worked the bench" at Shaw's Frame Factory, a "Looking Glass and Picture Frame Manufacturer."[5] In 1852, he contracted with artist George Harvey "to tour the latter's 'Dissolving Views of American Scenery,'"[6] painted on glass and projected to fifteen by seventeen feet in a theater setting by means of a device known as a Drummond Light. The admission fee was twenty-five cents, and the hall where these images were projected was "nightly thronged with admiring spectators,"[7] a phenomenon that made a lasting
impression on the enterprising Bierstadt.

He used the proceeds from this endeavor to travel in 1853 to Düsseldorf, the site of an international artists' colony and academy which was much admired by American painters of the day for its technical strengths -- "good composition, accurate drawing and faithful and elaborate finish."[8] Upon his arrival there, Bierstadt began to study informally with Worthington Whittredge and Emmanuel Leutze, two prominent American painters in residence at the time. Whittredge, in fact, took Bierstadt under his wing:

After working in my studio for a few months, he fitted up a paint box, stool and umbrella which he put with a few pieces of clothing into a large knapsack, and shouldering it one cold April morning, he started out to try his luck among the Westphalian peasants.... He remained away without a word until late autumn when he returned loaded down with innumerable studies of all sorts.... It was a remarkable summer's work for anybody to do, and for one who had little or no instruction, it was simply marvelous. He set to work in my studio immediately on large canvas composing and putting together parts of studies he had made and worked with an industry which left no daylight to go to waste.[9]

Remaining in Europe for three-and-a-half years, Bierstadt first sketched the surrounding German countryside, then traveled for fifteen months with Whittredge, Sanford Gifford and other artists through Switzerland, over the Bernese and Italian Alps and into Italy, sketching all the while and sending paintings home to New Bedford as quickly as he could complete them.

Returning to the United States in September 1857, Bierstadt had acquired the reputation of a serious painter. He spent the next year-and-a-half working his many European sketches into paintings, but he became restless and soon began to look about for new material.

The perfect: opportunity arose in April 1859, when Colonel Frederick West Lander, chief engineer of the central division of the Overland Trail, was ready to improve a "cut-off' route which he had forged the previous year. On the strength of his reputation first as a painter, and secondly as a photographer, Albert Bierstadt impressed Lander sufficiently to wrangle from him an invitation to join the expedition bound for the Rocky Mountains.

Bierstadt was aware of the intense curiosity Americans had for their distant frontier, a curiosity aroused by writers such as Richard Henry Dana, Francis Parkman, John C. Fremont and others.[10] The anticipation had been that the Rockies might prove a match for the European Alps, an important consideration "for they offered the last real hope that mountain grandeur on a European scale might be found within American borders."[11] It was, after all, the awe-inspiring sublimity of the Alps that poets and writers had extolled for generations, and it became a matter of national pride for Americans to find something comparable at home.

While George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Alfred Jacob Miller and John Mix Stanley had all preceded Bierstadt out West, none had primed his paintings with the experience of sketching the Alps that Bierstadt had garnered in Europe. From the base of the Rockies, he wrote a letter to the Crayon, New York's primary art magazine of the 1850s[12]:

The mountains are very fine, as seen from the plains; they resemble very much the Bernese Alps, one of the finest ranges of mountains in Europe, if not in the world....Their jagged summits, covered with snow and mingling with the clouds, present a scene which every lover of landscape would gaze upon in unqualified delight....We see many spots in the scenery that remind us of our New Hampshire and Catskill hills, but when we look up and measure the mighty perpendicular cliffs that rise hundreds of feet aloft, all capped with snow, we then realize that we are among a different class of mountains.[13]

In September 1859, Bierstadt returned to New Bedford with "a full complement of sketches, photographs and Indian artifacts"[14] which he used to compose what would later be termed his "Great Pictures." The most important painting to derive from the Lander expedition, The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, 1863, represented a scene in the Wind River Range of Nebraska Territory complete with two exquisite waterfalls tumbling into a lake (which doubled as a reflecting pool) and an encampment of Shoshone Indians -- all "projected" onto a 6' x 10' canvas -- a scale recalling George Harvey's views enlarged with the aid of the Drummond Light. Further playing upon national sentiment, Bierstadt named the mountain which dominated the scene after Lander, recently martyred in the Civil War.[15]

A critic for the Chicago Times seized upon the imaginative powers of the artist calling the painting "wondrously full of invention.[16] Even James Jackson Jarves, who would become Bierstadt's most formidable critic, commented that "in the quality of American light, clear, transparent, and sharp in outlines, he is unsurpassed."[17]

The Rocky Mountains typified many of the western paintings which would follow. In essence, "Bierstadt invented the Western American landscape," suggests Bierstadt scholar Nancy Anderson, "by skillfully joining passages of carefully observed and meticulously rendered detail with freely configured composition that met national needs."[18] The paintings which resulted from this first expedition proved enormously successful with the American public, so much so that within a few short years one reviewer commented in jest what was in fact partly true that "Bierstadt had already copyrighted all the principal mountains."[19]

A second trip in 1863 to the West Coast to document Yosemite and any other alpine peaks which might present themselves was even more artistically and financially rewarding. To facilitate this success, Bierstadt honed his skills at self-promotion to a fine edge, presenting the "Great Pictures" which resulted as if they were on stage:

The light is most carefully excluded from that part of the room occupied by the spectators, both by day and night. The walls about the end of the room where the picture is are carefully and gracefully draped with dark stuff, which absorbs most of the light that does not fall directly upon the picture. As the painting represents a view of an extensive valley from a considerable eminence, two galleries have been constructed from which a down view can be obtained, thus heightening the illusion. In the night time this deceptive effect is stronger than can be obtained from a day view, and is not unlike that of a set in a theatre.[20]

Bierstadt's marketing technique, however, invited controversy, as contemporary opinion dictated that an artist should be "a priestly figure whose life as a quasi-religious vocation [was] free of worldly goals."[21] Asher B. Durand, the dean of the Hudson River School, clarified its position: "We cannot serve God and Mammon. It is better to make shoes or dig potatoes than seek the pursuit of Art for the sake of gain.... This is one of the principal causes operating to the degradation of Art, perverting it to the servility of a mere trade."[22] James Jackson Jarves was more to the point: "Within proper limits, the zest of gain is healthful; but if pushed to excess, it will reduce art to the level of trade."[23]

While the nineteenth century remembered Bierstadt both adoringly and critically for his monumental and idealized paintings of what would come to be called "the American sublime," it is ironic that twentieth-century art historians were first attracted to his "fresh and brilliant" plein air sketches which they found "surprisingly modern" and which they saw as precursors to the gestural work of their own mid-century artists.[24] In 1963, the Florence Lewison Gallery in New York mounted the first of three exhibitions devoted to these sketches which contributed to a re-discovery and re-evaluation of the artist's entire oeuvre.

Bierstadt was hardly the first to excel at painting in the open air. The plein air tradition in America had begun with the earliest landscape painters, the patriarchs of the Hudson River School, who were greatly influenced by the Claudian mode and the extraordinary plein air sketches of Claude Lorraine himself (1600-1682).[25]

"Every herb and flower of the field has its specific, distinction, and perfect beauty, ...its peculiar habitation, expression and function," intoned the English art critic, John Ruskin. "The highest art is that which seizes this specific character, which assigns to it its proper position in the landscape.... Every class of rock, every kind of earth, every form of cloud, must be studied with equal industry, and rendered with equal precision."[26] The landscape painter should study atmospheric changes "daily and hourly," added Durand, because "the degrees of clearness and density, scarcely two successive days the same -- local conditions of temperature -- dryness and moisture -- and many other causes, render anything like specific direction impracticable."[27]

In the 1850s, the plein air sketch began to gain favor, especially among devotees of Durand, though the problem of sketch versus finished painting was even more complex in America than in Europe. Delacroix's musings on the subject suggest that even he suffered from an art audience which preferred "finish" over "vague suggestion":

Here we come back, as always, to the question of which I have spoken before: the finished work compared with the sketch -- the great edifice when only the large guiding lines are visible and before the finishing and coordinating of the various parts has given it a more settled appearance and therefore limited the effect on our imagination, a faculty that enjoys vagueness, expands freely and embraces vast objects at the slightest hint.[29]

From the time of her earliest limners, and because of them, America had demonstrated a preference for "linear boundedness," "linear distinctness."[30] Thus, while the idea behind the sketch -- apprehending the specificity of nature -- was applauded, it was rarely ever felt that the sketch might stand on its own merit.

As the nineteenth-century American artist had, for the most part, no patronage for his sketch, one can appreciate Bierstadt's sketches as intimate and intensely private documents which were a significant part of his artistic process. Journeying with him for a moment back into the West which he loved, we glimpse something of his acuity at sketching through William Byers, then editor of the Rocky Mountain News.

Byers had offered to take Bierstadt into the Rockies to show him a particularly stunning view for what would become his most ambitious Rocky Mountain painting, Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie, completed in 1866.[31] The excursion had begun on a day of dismal and stormy weather, but when Bierstadt finally "caught sight of the chosen view, he was transformed":

He said nothing, but his face was a picture of intense life and excitement. Taking in the view for the moment, he slid off his mule, glanced quickly to see where the hack was that carried his paint outfit, walked sideways to it and began fumbling at the lash-ropes, all the time keeping his eyes on the scene up the valley.... As he went to work he...[remarked], "I must get a study in colors; it will take me fifteen minutes!" He said nothing more. It was indeed a notable, a wonderful view. In addition to the natural topographic features of the scene, storm-clouds were sweeping across...from north-west to south-east.... Eddies of wind from the great chasm following up the face of the cliff were again caught in the air-current at its crest and drove the broken clouds in rolling masses through the storm-drift.... Soft hailstones were falling [and]... rays of sunlight were breaking through the broken, ragged clouds and lighting up in moving streaks the falling storm.... Bierstadt worked as though inspired. Nothing was said by either of us. At length the sketch was finished to his satisfaction. The glorious scene was fading as he packed up his traps. He asked: "There, was I more than fifteen minutes?" I answered: "Yes, you were at work forty-five minutes by the watch!"[32]

In Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains, California, (1868) one becomes aware of the extraordinary power of Bierstadt's plein air sketch transposed into the larger panoramic scene. While the viewer might need to see this large painting from a distance of thirty or so feet, Bierstadt "lavished" an inordinate amount of time on the exquisite detail "of rocks, foliage and shoreline.... For the especially observant viewer, the artist offered a technical tour de force -- a fish visible beneath the surface of the crystalline mountain water and otherwise unnoticeable from the farther distance!"[33]

The plein air sketch -- meant for Bierstadt's eyes alone -- became the impetus for his resulting paintings and an integral part of them. In the sketches, he could explore subtle shades of color under varying conditions of light; or record mist, fog, storm and sunshine -- dawn, twilight, sunset and a multiplicity of variations in between -- nuances which, when interjected into his paintings, imbued them with a powerful, temporal quality.

That peculiar opalescent pink (found at the heart of a conch shell) that dawn brings to San Francisco Coast (Plate 24) is one example; scudding clouds lifting off a flawless sheen of water as a storm clears -- his preoccupation in After the Storm (Plate 20) -- is another. Bierstadt also learned to convey the humid heat and mid-August haze at the height of a New England summer. White Mountains - New Hampshire (Plate 13) and Forest Scene (Plate 8) were both executed during the summer of 1874 when he and his brothers advanced on the White Mountains to sketch and photograph them.[34]

If "vanishing" came to convey the essence of the West, another Bierstadt drama -- sometimes stated, often implied -- was evoked by the tension created when the artist juxtaposed the temporal fragility of man or animal against the timeless indifference of Nature. A prominent member of Teddy Roosevelt's Boone and Crockett [hunting] Club in New York,[35] Bierstadt, with his keen powers of observation, noted the wildlife he encountered everywhere in the wilderness including the wild horses which graze upon and are almost subsumed by the rich grass at the side of a mountain river (Owen's Valley) (Plate 4) and the frail bravado of two Rocky Mountain Sheep (Plate 9) (ca. 1870-1880) silhouetted against the sharp precipices of the treacherous terrain which surrounds them.

The waterfall was another fascinating character in the Bierstadt drama, one that he used repeatedly in his depictions of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas. Waterfall (Plate 7), probably executed in upper New York state between 1860 and 1870, shows Bierstadt's interest in the action of falling water, the force with which it planes across the crumbling mill and hurtles into the pool below.

Wave (Plate 16) (1878) captures both the structure and the tourmaline-blue translucence of a Caribbean breaker off the island of New Providence one split second before it crashes upon the shore. Inspired by Bierstadt's earliest visits to the Caribbean, where his wife convalesced in the winters of 1877 to 1893, this oil sketch preceded his most important marine painting, The Shore of the Turquoise Sea (1878).[36]

On a three-month trip to Yellowstone in July 1881,[37] Bierstadt's quick brush and sharp vision even captured the geothermal sterility, the barren otherworldliness, of Yellowstone National Park where every sixty-six minutes, the geyser Old Faithful erupts 300 feet into the air under the watchful gaze of a "red-eyed" crater (Old Faithful -- Yellowstone) (Plate 3).

Much like the West itself, the Wagnerian themes of Bierstadt's exuberant paintings helped to shape America's self image. But the plein air oil sketches provided the "real" material that made Albert Bierstadt's "ideal" landscapes both credible and incredible. Though they were used as building blocks to construct his heroic works, one can readily conclude that they stand freely on their own merit -- spare, fresh, and unforgettable.



1. Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), p. 138.

2. E.O. Matthiessen, American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman (London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1941), p. 62.

3. Hughes, p.138.

4. Nancy K. Anderson, "Chronology" in Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise (New York: Hudson Hills Press, 1990), p. 115.

5. Ibid.

6. Linda S. Ferber, "The History of a Reputation" in Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, p. 23.

7. New Bedford Standard 1 July 1851, quoted in Ferber, p. 23.

8. George Henry Hall to the American Art Union, 28 Oct. 1850, New York Historical Society, quoted in Ferber, p. 23.

9. Worthington Whittredge, Autobiography, Archives of American Art, New York, New York, quoted in Gordon Hendricks, "Albert Bierstadt" (Fort Worth. Amen Carter Museum, 1972), p. 9.

10. Anderson, "Wondrously Full of Invention" in Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, p. 70.

11. Anderson, p. 72.

12. Hughes, p. 139.

13. Crayon, September 1859, p. 287, quoted in Anderson, p. 72.

14. Anderson, p. 73.

15. Ibid., p. 74.

16. Chicago Times, 31 May 1865, quoted in Anderson, p. 77.

17. James Jackson Jarves, The Art Idea: Sculpture, Painting and Architecture in America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1960), pp. 143, 192, quoted in Ferber, p. 28.

18. Anderson, p. 74.

19. N.Y Times, 14 May 1868, quoted in Ferber, p. 26.

20. Post, New York, 7 May 1867, quoted in Anderson, p. 90.

21. Ferber, p. 32.

22. Asher B. Durand, "Letters on Landscape Painting," Crayon, 3 Jan. 1855, pp. 1-2, quoted in Ferber, p. 32.

23. Jarves, Art Thoughts: The Experiences and Observations of an American Amateur in Europe (New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1869), p. 299, quoted in Ferber, p. 33.

24. Telephone conversation with Nancy K. Anderson, May 28, 1998.

25. H. W. Janson, History of Art (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1966), p. 441.

26. John Ruskin, Modern Painters, Intro. to Vol. III (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1847), p. xxxiii.

27. Crayon, I, No. 10 (March 7, 1855) 145 ff., quoted in Barbara Novak, American Painting of the Nineteenth Century (New York: Harper and Row, 1969), p. 90.

28. Novak, p.88.

29. Eugene Delacroix, Journal, Ed. Hubert Wellington, Trans. Lucy Norton (New York: Phaidon, 1952), pp. 202-3, quoted in Novak, p. 298.

30. Novak, pp. 15, 19 ff.

31. Anderson, p. 88.

32. William Newton Byers, "Bierstadt's Visit to Colorado," Magazine of Western History 11 (Jan. 1890), pp. 237-38, quoted in Anderson, p. 89.

33. Anderson, p. 94.

34. Anderson, "Chronology," p. 227, 228.

35. Hendricks, p. 35.

36. Gerald L. Carr, "Albert Bierstadt" (New York: Alexander Gallery, 1983), No. 21.

37. Anderson, "Chronology," p. 250.

About the author

Mary Terence McKay is an independent scholar and arts writer in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Editor's note: RL readers may also enjoy:

rev. 12/30/11

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

Copyright 2011 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.