Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Bierstadt, Albert
Collection: American Collection
Specialty: Paintings
View Artwork
Two artists in particular dominated the later period of the Hudson River
School : Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt. While their styles had
certain similarities and their work was equally popular, they represented
different aspects of the American persona. Church came from a wealthy
family and represented an emerging American aristocracy. Bierstadt, on the
other hand, exemplified the American ideal: the immigrant who came to
America and became a self-made success. Though born in Prussia in 1830,
Bierstadt arrived in America when only 2. He began developing a career as
an artist early in his life, offering art lessons in 1851 though he
himself had only a rudimentary knowledge of painting. He managed to make
enough money to go to Dusseldorf in 1853 for 3 years of artistic study.
While there, he shared a studio with Worthington Whittredge, later also
become a member of the Hudson River School, who said, "[Bierstadt] will
make his mark in the world of Art, and for this reason that he has no
other aim, pursuit, pleasure but to paint."

Bierstadt returned to America and in 1859 embarked on his first trip to
the Rocky Mountains , the journey that would launch him on the meteoric
career Whittredge had prophesied. Returning from that sojourn, Bierstadt
set up shop in New York City and began producing his great landscapes of
the American West. These paintings combined large-scale scenery with
dramatic effects of light in what would seem to us today an almost
cinematic view. Bierstadt and Frederic Church often exhibited together,
even organizing traveling shows of their "Great Pictures". The interest in
these large landscapes was fueled by the notion of Manifest Destiny, a
powerful concept even in the middle of the Civil War. The steadily
increasing belief that Americans were divinely ordained to be the masters
of the continent (and even beyond) created enormous demand for these
paintings of a West most art patrons had yet to see for themselves. In
1867, the critic of The Leader urged readers to go see "The Domes
of the Yosemite " because "They will feel that the world is progressing
and the Americans are a great people."

Throughout the 1860s, Bierstadt's career soared on both sides of the
Atlantic. His sale figures were the highest of any American artist,
exceeding even Church's. In 1865, English and American buyers were paying
as much as $25,000 apiece for paintings like "Storm in the Rocky
Mountains, Mt. Rosalie ". These were reported in the press and by the
artist to the point where they became the stuff of legend - the poor
immigrant child who had become, by dint of hard work and self-education,
the highest-paid artist in America.

Unfortunately, at exactly the time his reputation was at its height,
critical thought was beginning to turn against him. Taste was changing. As
critics and the public turned from the meticulous depictions of scenery
arising from Neo-Platonic ideals to the idea of landscape as a vessel for
poetic and subjective interpretations of nature, Bierstadt's style
steadily diminished in popularity. Critics not only found his paintings
distasteful, they were also disdainful of the amount of time and effort he
took to promote them. Bierstadt was too much of a "showman" as far as they
were concerned; he took his art to the people in flashy shows, rather than
displaying them quietly within the context of institutional exhibitions.
At the height of his fame, Bierstadt was reported to have earned $120,000
over the previous 3 years, drove the finest team in New York, and was
building a villa at Irvington. Nonetheless, the association of Bierstadt
with unseemliness in money matters was aggravated that same year when, on
the verge of receiving a government commission, Bierstadt asked for
$80,000 to paint 2 large panels for the Hall of Congress. By the 1880s,
his work had fallen into disrepute. After his painting, "The Last of the
Buffalo " was rejected for exhibition at the 1889 Paris Exposition
Universelle, Bierstadt's career was assumed to be over; the president of
the selection committee that rejected him unanimously was Worthington

Appallingly, Bierstadt's last years were spent in relative obscurity and
financial distress. His magnificent villa Malkasten burned to the ground
in 1882 while he was attempting to sell it. Though he continued to paint,
he was paid little attention and died suddenly in 1902 without much notice
from the art world. Yet critic William Howe Downes did note at the time
that "his pictures are as good today as they ever were; it is not they
which have changed". Today, Bierstadt's reputation has been restored, his
work brings prices that would certainly make him smile, and he is
represented in major museums and galleries across America . His work is a
priceless legacy; as scholar Nancy Anderson says, "In paintings that
became visual sanctuaries (much the way national parks became literal
sanctuaries), Bierstadt offered safe haven for the wilderness myth that
lay at the heart of America 's definition of itself." In Bierstadt's work,
as we once did in the man, we see ourselves.

Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections