On the Road With the Unstoppable Albert Bierstadt

"Among the Sierra Nevada Montains" – Albert Bierstadt

by Brooke Chilvers

As a kid growing up in Manhattan, I went to nursery school down the street from where they were building the Guggenheim Museum. The Medieval Art, and Arms and Armor galleries of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET), were great for pubescent tickle tag. 

Then, in 9th grade, I made out with J.R. in front of Albert Bierstadt’s gigantic Rocky Mountain, Lander’s Peak (1863), which means Edwin Church’s equally impressive The Heart of the Andes (1859) must have had my back, as it hangs on the opposite wall. Mostly, I  recall the Bierstadt.  

When J.R. scraped his entire existence from Facebook, including too many photos of the adorable dog that replaced his adorable wife, I returned to the painting that was background to teenage love. I also recalled cracks during a guided visit that the German-born Bierstadt (1830–1902) was as much a capitalist as an artist, with the docent crediting Bierstadt with inventing the traveling “Great Picture” exhibition, which turned out not to be true.  

In fact, this innovative concept of the single-painting Great Picture exhibition, which burst the monopoly held on the art market by the state and academy-backed Salons, was pioneered by Boston-born English artist, John Singleton Copley (1738–1815).

Although Copley had moved to London only in 1774, when he witnessed the crowds his sizable historical paintings drew to Royal Academy exhibitions, in 1781, he rented a hall to display his very big canvas, Death of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords, and charged a one-shilling entrance fee. Of the 20,000 visitors, many were attending an art show for the first time.

Death of the Earl of Chatham in the House of Lords” – John Singleton Copley

Copley’s explanation of the painting in his printed pamphlet also contained an invitation to subscribe to the engraving by prominent publisher John Boydell. Boydell promptly suggested Copley depict another timely topic for a second private exhibition-brochure-prints Great Picture show, which became The Death of Major Peirson during the Battle of Jersey in 1781. And so on.

What is true is that the rags-to-riches Bierstadt was perhaps a more flagrantly self-promoting entrepreneur. 

Albert’s family arrived in the States from Solingen, near Düsseldorf, in 1832. The father worked as a cooper in the busy whaling town of New Bedford, Massachusetts, while Albert simply taught himself to paint. He then got work projecting, in different theaters, enlargements of painted-on-glass landscapes using a Drummond light, also called a limelight.

Düsseldorf, since the 1830s, had become the center of a highly realistic school of landscape painting, and Bierstadt returned there in 1853, just as his sponsor died of typhus. Instead, he learned from his talented American friends, artists Worthington Whittredge (1820–1910) and Emanuel Leutze (1816–1868), and toured European art capitals.  When Bierstadt returned to the States four years later, he’d educated himself into an artist. 

“Lake Lucerne” – Albert Bierstadt

Success came fast. In 1858, the National Academy of Design (NAD) accepted for exhibition his large-scale landscape, Lake Lucerne, whose soaring Swiss Alpine background would find expression again and again in Bierstadt’s Rocky Mountain paintings. Railroad magnate Alvin Adams purchased the painting, today in the National Gallery of Art, for a hefty $925.  

Bierstadt joined the ranks of artist-explorers in 1859, on the survey expedition of Colonel Frederick W. Lander to the Nebraska Territory and Rocky Mountains for the proposed Pacific Coast Railway route through Wyoming. His extensive sketches and studies of Laramie Peak and the Wind River Range soon became compelling panoramas of the West’s pristine wilderness, supporting the American vision of Manifest Destiny.

When Bierstadt moved to the center of the art world – Manhattan’s Tenth Street Studio Building – in 1859, hanging in the atrium was Frederic Edwin Church’s (1826–1900) landmark pay-for-view single-work Great Picture exhibition, displaying his 5’ x 10’ The Heart of the Andes.  In addition to its profitable engravings, it generated an astounding 12,000-plus visitors in three weeks, before traveling to London, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis. And. it sold for a record-breaking $10,000.

Bierstadt returned West, in 1863, with journalist and author Fitz Hugh Ludlow (and later married Ludlow’s ex-wife, Rosalie). They traveled to California, through Colorado, the Sierra Nevada mountains, and the Cascade Range, all the way to Oregon, while Ludlow fed the artist’s blossoming reputation with regular dispatches about their journey to the New York Evening Post

“Rocky Mountain, Lander’s Peak” – Albert Bierstadt

Clearly following in Church’s footsteps, Bierstadt exhibited Rocky Mountain, Lander’s Peak at the Tenth Street Building in 1863. It sold, in 1865, to an English railway entrepreneur for a record-smashing $25,000; his associate purchased Bierstadt’s 1866 Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie, now in the Brooklyn Museum.  

The artist and his two paintings were invited to Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s summer residence on the Isle of Wight, for a private royal viewing. 

“Storm In The Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie” – Albert Bierstadt

Large landscapes of the untouched grandeur of the American West were all the fashion. New York financier LeGrand Lockwood commissioned the 15-foot-wide The Domes of Yosemite for $25,000, in 1867. This, Bierstadt’s largest work, toured New York, Philadelphia and Boston, with one journalist quipping that Bierstadt seemed to have copyrighted America’s most important mountain peaks.

With the gold crash of 1869, the boom years for Great Pictures were suddenly over. Still, Bierstadt managed to organize tours for all five of his Western panoramas, to Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, Brussels, and Munich, while getting himself named Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur by Napoléon III at the Paris Salon. A gold medal from the Royal Prussian Academy of the Arts in Berlin, in 1868, for Among the Sierra Mountains, drove its purchase price to $15,000 for Alvin Adams. 

But the taste for Hudson River School landscapes was fading. Bierstadt and Church were accused of bypassing the selection committee for the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876 in Philadelphia. In 1878, the third Paris Exposition Universelle accepted none of Bierstadt’s works.  

His patrons’ offspring began shedding their suddenly bygone artworks. At Lockwood’s death in 1872,The Domes of Yosemite sold at auction for $5,100. At the 1882 Adams estate sale, Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains brought a mere $1,400. 

That year, Bierstadt’s extravagant Tarrytown mansion burned to the ground, and his beloved Rosalie died in 1893. In 1895, he declared bankruptcy, and he died in obscurity, having outlived his time. Church died equally outdated, but with money in the bank.  

Brooke Chilvers hopes that if J.R. ever reads this, he will contact his classmates.