Painting America’s Love for the Wilderness

April 6, 2011 Updated: April 6, 2011

DETAIL: The mountains in the background seem more true-to-life than a photograph, but the figures in the foreground leave one to speculate. 'Scene in the Sierra Nevada,' Oil on canvas, public collection. (Artrenewal.org )
DETAIL: The mountains in the background seem more true-to-life than a photograph, but the figures in the foreground leave one to speculate. 'Scene in the Sierra Nevada,' Oil on canvas, public collection. (Artrenewal.org )
In the early days of the western expansion, mountain men, trappers, surveyors, and explorers were some of the first to encounter the grand vistas of what would be the Western United States.

Among them was Albert Bierstadt, a prolific painter and one of the most celebrated landscape artists in the United States. Sharply detailed, vivid with color, and strikingly luminous, Bierstadt’s landscape paintings take the viewer on a surreal and enchanting voyage through his own experiences in the American wilderness.

Albert Bierstadt was part of the Hudson River School, a loose organization of like-minded individuals who developed landscape painting and a philosophy that was uniquely American.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American identity was linked heavily with the natural world. John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Aldo Leopold, and Ralph Waldo Emerson provided popular reading material. In this environment, Albert Bierstadt and the Hudson River School filled a niche: They displayed the sacred qualities of the land on canvas to illuminate what authors had penned.

SUNSET: Light cascades across a river valley as the sun sets on the horizon, blurring the landscape and drawing the eyes to the warm sun. 'Deer at Sunset,' Oil on paper, laid down on canvas, public collection. (Artrenewal.org)
SUNSET: Light cascades across a river valley as the sun sets on the horizon, blurring the landscape and drawing the eyes to the warm sun. 'Deer at Sunset,' Oil on paper, laid down on canvas, public collection. (Artrenewal.org)
The paintings of the Hudson River School artists were not merely ornate wall decorations. In the paintings, the artists tried to convey a divine presence in their work.

As popular as the Hudson River artists were, with many wealthy households in the United States displaying their paintings, they were more. The paintings were seen almost in the same light as religious art in churches, meant to connect one with the divine through the beauty of nature.

The Hudson River artists were very much against the haphazard development and materialistic pursuits of their day. As such, the landscape paintings often portray a struggle between man and nature.

Bierstadt’s Work

Bierstadt’s paintings often show the workings of nature and as such seem a bit more cryptic than others in the same school, while other paintings are more to the point.

GLOOMY: This painting brought about a call for a census on the buffalo population in North America. In the pre-Columbian period, there were an estimated 60 million buffalo in North America. By the late 19th century, only 500 remained. 'The Last of the Buf (Artrenewal.org)
GLOOMY: This painting brought about a call for a census on the buffalo population in North America. In the pre-Columbian period, there were an estimated 60 million buffalo in North America. By the late 19th century, only 500 remained. 'The Last of the Buf (Artrenewal.org)
Buffalo skeletons litter the landscape in many of his Western paintings. He arrived on the scene after the great herds of buffalo were reduced to near extinction by sport hunters and development. His sadness over the loss comes across in his paintings, as does the Hudson River School artists’ driving philosophy that the land was a gift to humanity; we are meant to cherish it.

Bierstadt grew up in Massachusetts and then moved back to Germany, where he was born, to study at the Düsseldorf Art Academy. Bierstadt returned to America in 1857 and joined a U.S. government surveying expedition traveling west to Oregon and California. He brought back scenes of impossible beauty. To some, his work was discredited as fantasy.

Albert Bierstadt loved the mountains. The more jagged and precipitous the landscape, the more detailed and more alive Bierstadt’s paintings seem. Many of Bierstadt’s paintings are epic in scale.

PRISTINE: Albert Bierstadt painted landscapes of surreal beauty. There is no hint of death and decay in this painting. Soft rain clouds perform their ancient rite to give their entire fill, in a scene painted as much for the heart as the eyes. 'California (Artrenewal.org)
PRISTINE: Albert Bierstadt painted landscapes of surreal beauty. There is no hint of death and decay in this painting. Soft rain clouds perform their ancient rite to give their entire fill, in a scene painted as much for the heart as the eyes. 'California (Artrenewal.org)
In the Brooklyn Museum, his painting Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie stretches over 11 feet in length. One could guess Bierstadt wanted to envelop his audiences in a majestic and breathtaking view. Critics of his time thought a large ego was behind his large canvases.

The more the railroads began to open up the West, the more Bierstadt’s paintings fell out of fashion. Settlers noted that Bierstadt’s utopian landscapes didn’t quite match up with reality. His entry “The Last of the Buffalo” was rejected by the Paris Exposition of 1889. By then, Romanticism and academic art had made way to Impressionism and Abstractionism.

Albert Bierstadt spent the later years of his life in good graces with Europe’s elite. He was an honored guest of Queen Victoria, a recipient of the Chevalier of the Legion of Honor by Napoleon III, and won the Order of Saint Stanislaus from the Czar of Russia.

His art captures the power and grace of nature, ever changing, but eternal in spirit. Albert Bierstadt’s work has seen a revival in the 20th century with an increasing interest in Western art and an invigorated environmental movement. Albert Bierstadt painted well over 500 paintings in his lifetime.

In private auctions, Bierstadt’s paintings have fetched millions of dollars. The value is in part due to the timeless quality of his work. Bierstadt’s paintings also give a historical account of the Western frontier before settlers marked the land. Those factors and America’s continued love affair with the wilderness have made Albert Bierstadt one of its most celebrated artists.