Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

Albert Bierstadt’s life today stands as a remarkable American success story.[i]  At the height of his powers, Bierstadt’s paintings of the American West were famous for depicting the overwhelming grandeur and majesty of nature combined with a devotion to minute detail — a combination that was very popular and successful. Bierstadt himself was singled out as one of America’s most ambitious and energetic artists.

[i] Scholarship on Bierstadt is extensive. See Nancy K. Anderson and Linda S. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt, Art and Enterprise (NY: Hudson Hills Press, 1991) for an excellent chronology and bibliography.

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The son of a cooper, Bierstadt was born in Germany and moved with his family to New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he was two. At age twenty-one he went back to Germany to study painting in Düsseldorf. After three years of study Bierstadt returned to New Bedford fully skilled in the craft of painting.  In 1858 he sold his masterwork, The Arch of Octavius, to the Boston Athenaeum for four hundred dollars. The following year Bierstadt accompanied the Lander Expedition to the territories of Colorado and Wyoming and made hundreds of sketches for a series of large-scale paintings of the Western mountains. After he came back east he moved to New York and took a studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building.

Bierstadt made his first trip to Niagara Falls in the summer of 1869, where he stayed with his brother Charles, who was a resident photographer.  Both Albert and Charles worked closely together producing views of Niagara Falls.  From 1869 until 1880 Albert Bierstadt produced nearly a dozen views of Niagara Falls. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa are among the major institutions to own examples of Bierstadt’s Niagara Falls paintings.

Bierstadt enjoyed phenomenal success and celebrity status early on; his works sold for astronomical sums until the 1870’s. Tonal, barbizon influenced paintings were then just beginning to pervade the American art scene making Bierstadt’s paintings look over detailed to public taste. His success waned; his prices plummeted. The period was a dark one for Bierstadt as he contended with his wife’s long illness and her eventual death in 1893 as well as the burning of his beloved Irvington-on-Hudson home and studio, Malkasten, in 1882.

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