Bierstadt Comes Back East
The reputation of Nineteenth Century American painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) differs depending which camp you belong to. Art critics and art-for-art’s-sake connoisseurs generally find his work derivative, lacking a personal artistic vision and even in compositional and technical fundamentals. Painter John F. Weir, for example, described his large canvases as “vast illustrations of scenery … carelessly and crudely executed … .” Contemporary English critics (when Bierstadt showed his works in London) found his bright colors in bad taste. Later in the century, as art became mrs of a calling than a profession, Bierstadt’s reputation as an aesthete was harmed because he had quite intentionally, and astonishingly successfully, sought after popular acclaim and pecuniary fortune.
On the other hand, historians of American culture (particularly those who incline towards American exceptionalism) as well as collectors (wealthy patrons then, mostly museums now) hail Bierstadt as something of visual discoverer of the American West and as something of a second generation seer of Romantic American Transcendentalist—one of those who saw in Nature America’s promise and, as Robert Hughes claimed, who produced the “paintings that did the most to promote the image of the Manifest Destiny … .” Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser (curator of the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum) puts it a bit more prosaically: “Bierstadt’s depictions of the little-known scenery of the American West appealed to the new industrial upper middle class, who valued their great size and virtuoso workmanship as well as their celebration of America’s seemingly limitless natural resources.”
If you know Bierstadt at all, you probably know him from these oversized landscapes of the west, such as Among the Sierra Nevada, California at the Smithsonian, which is representative of his dramatic (and sometimes flamboyant) landscapes. This one is actually better than representative. E.P. Richardson (the late director of the Detroit Institute of Art) noted that “When his big dramatic pictures do not come off, they are dreadful. when they do, they have an excitement for us still after one hundred years: what must they have meant when all this was really new, to the eyes of his own time!” The Sierra Navada canvas at the Smithsonian is one of the very best, but when seen in small reproductions today, it has a commercial, even kitsch quality to it, like something in a chain hotel hallway. But on first encountering it, its massive size (it measures 72 x 120 1/8 in. (183 x 305 cm)) makes the apparent burst of light from the center top of the image appear transcendent. If it had been made 300 years earlier, the Lord of Hosts would have appeared in the middle of it. That light, just over the shoulder of a snow-capped peak in the center background, dramatically illuminates the cliffs on one side and the trees on the other, both of which tower over a line of deer in the foreground. The first impression is of coming over a hill as the sun is breaking from behind cloud cover to reveal a pristine valley of unsurpassed beauty. You can imagine this painting’s appeal to wealthy Eastern industrialists who wanted to make a dramatic statement about their own importance (and wealth), by having such a work grace the wall of their estate. And so, in this case, it did. This particular Bierstadt was acquired by William Brown Dinsmore in 1873 and installed in “The Locusts,” the family estate in Duchess County, New York, before it ended up a national treasure.
On seeing more of these works, it’s hard to shake the conclusion that Bierstadt had stumbled upon a lucrative and methodical way of prying loot from the overlords of the Gilded Age. The pictures seem more and more alike the more one sees. Take an earlier painting at the Met, Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak. The picture is slightly larger than the last one (73 1/2 x 120 3/4 in. (186.7 x 306.7 cm) and the sky lacks the dramatic cloud cover. But otherwise, there is still the same burst of light in the center, and there is a row of ungulates in the foreground. (This picture, however, is not of pristine countryside; there are structures by Native Americans behind the animals.) There is no obvious source of the spotlight in the center. It can’t be the sun, since the shadows of the figures are not consistent with light in that space. But the light, however unexplainable, serves the same function as the sun in Among the Sierra Nevada: It opens up and spotlights the most physically dramatic aspect of the landscape, in this case a waterfall. And once again, it is perfectly suitable for sale to those most likely to pay the highest price.
Let’s look at one more example, Mount Corcoran, which hangs at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. As with the other two, there is a central body of water, in front of a mountain range. In this case there is only one animal, a bear (?) apparently seeking a drink. Once again the light peaks through the clouds, although this time, the shadows show the source of the sunlight. The picture, like the other two has geological uplifts and trees to cradle the central focus, the lake. And as with the other two, that lake is fed by a waterfall from the mountains in the central background.
The odd thing about Bierstadt’s marketing of the paintings was that despite the fairly uniform overall composition of the landscapes, he insisted that the paintings were not works of artistic imagination, but rather accurate renderings of specific places. This evidently mattered to his customers, who believed they were purchasing views of nature rather than works of genius. The desire for verisimilitude was so strong that it even deceived sophisticated collectors. Mount Corcoran was sold to William Wilson Corcoran with a War Department map showing the location of the purported mount. When the gallery’s curator several days later discovered that the mountain was a fiction, Bierstadt was unapologetic, claiming that he named the peak.
It’s one thing for an artist to hit on a formula and stick with it for money. Picasso, after all, spent most of his last three decades amassing a fortune that way. Of course, Picasso had a substantial body of work and innovation (among the greatest in the history of art) before 1940. What was Bierstadt’s body of work before the Western Canvasses? The exhibition entitled “Albert Bierstadt in New York & New England” at the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut (through March 2) gives a good sample of his early, and Eastern work. In fact, to my knowledge it is the only show that has every tried to examine his non-Western works in any systematic way. Before looking at the works in this exhibition, however, it’s probably best to give some biographical context.
Bierstadt spent his early life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, after his family emigrated in 1831 from Solingen, a city in the Rhenish provide of the Prussian Kingdom, especially know for its blacksmith (and whitesmith) industries. Albert’s father took up the trade of cooper in the new city, a hub of maritime activity. Albert’s two brother became successful photographers, although they first had to escape their apprenticeships to useful trades. Charles (the oldest) set up shop at the Niagara Falls and Edward (two years younger than Charles and 6 years older than Albert) had a studio in New York City and also took photographs during the Civil War, based from a tavern in Virginia. Edward and Charles would later form the firm of Bierstadt Brothers, which, holding a patent on a new form of stereoscope, had considerable publishing success. (One exhibit at the Mattatuck show shows a book of the Biernstadts’ stereoscopic prints with a viewer cleverly built into a flap on the book’s cover. Both brothers would Both these brothers would play a role in Albert’s career, by providing photographs form which Albert could paint landscapes in his studio and also by producing engravings of Albert’s paintings.
The cooperage business must have become relatively prosperous, because there is no evidence that Albert was ever shunted off to an apprenticeship. He was allowed to develop (almost certainly alone) his talent for making crayon drawings, and in his early 20s for oil painting. He gave drawing lessons for his support. His advertisements promised to show pupils how to make creditable drawings after the first lesson (“good pictures at their first attempt, far superior to their own expectations”). That is perhaps the first clue to the entrepreneurial inclination that guided his (and his brothers’) art.
Bierstadt’s pictures evidently impressed locals enough to sponsor his trip to Germany for intensive art education. Bierstadt had exhibited several times, had sold paintings to locals and even produced exhibitions for others, he twice produced George Harvey’s watercolor show using a magic lantern, which dissolved pictures into one. (None of his work before traveling to Europe seems to have survived, however.) As a result of Bierstadt’s local fame and probably to enhance his own reputation as a leading citizen and wealthy patron of the arts, Captain William G. Blackler provided the funds for Albert to travel to the Rhenish province to study in Düsseldorf with Johann Peter Hasenclever, an artist of some modest renown. The choice of master was probably not based on any familiarity with his works. In fact, an artist less sympathetic to the what would become Bierstadt’s signature style would have been hard to find.
Hasenclever specialized in the intricacies of human relations and his gaze was always fixed on small social groups. He was not particularly interested in the beauty of nature, whether delicate or grandiose. Light was used to model the human form, not cause the heart to flutter at the first gaze at a dramatic landscape.
Bierstadt sought out Hasenclever mainly because he had a connection—Hasenclever was Bierstadt’s mother’s cousin. But when Bierstadt arrived in Düsseldorf, he learned that Hasenclever was dead. Not daunted, Bierstadt applied to American painters Emanuel Leutze (recently famous in America for exhibition of his Washington Crossing the Delaware Fame) and Worthington Whittredge (who would later return to American to be part of the Hudson River school of painters), asking their recommendation for him to study with the landscape painter Andreas Achenbach. They reviewed the work he had brought as audition pieces from America and concluded he had no talent. To preserve his self-respect, they told him Achenbach did not take students.
None daunted, Bierstadt bucked down to a life of an anti-social hermit (to avoid the expense that sociability would entail) and studied for several months at Whittredge’s studio. He then went off on his own to be among the Westphalian peasants to draw. When he returned in the fall, Whittredge marveled at his accomplishments, particularly admired “one very remarkable study of sunlight on the steps of an old church which some years afterwards was turned into a picture that gave him more fame than anything he had painted.” Wittredge was as impressed by the amount of work Bierstadt had produced as by its quality, especially given that he was essentially untutored.
Whittredge was right to single out the study for Sunlight and Shadows; it represents the peak of a style that Bierstadt would abandon when he fixed on his popular style. It examines the effect of sunlight, filtered through the leaves of a tree (not seen). The light and shadows model the statues and columns and gives a sense of real place, a solidness that isn’t conveyed in his gigantic western landscapes, even though those paintings deal largely with views of massive rock structures. It has a visual intricacy to it that his later works would shun in favor of flamboyance.
The study was not improved upon by his principal painting on the subject, which he completed seven years later. The principal difference is that he added the tree that produced the shadows to the composition. The tree, however, has an unreal quality to it, stylized, like the trees in many of his epic canvases. The second painting also has a peasant woman sitting on the stairs leaning on the pedestal of the foremost statue cradling a sleeping child. The figures were undoubtedly added for a touch of sentimentality, but as in almost all Bierstadt’s work, the face is obscured and the people play essentially an ornamental role. The romanticism that the figures injected into the study of light, however, is what attracted its first acclamation. Reviewing an exhibition of the work submitted to the annual April show at the National Academy of Design in New York in 1862, the critic of the New-York Evening Post (at the time a respectable newspaper) called the work “probably the most perfectly satisfactory pairing the artist has ever produced.” He especially pointed out the “old woman sated on the step of the church, which a sleeping child on her lap” which made the “whole work” “one of the happiest delineations of noonday repose which we have ever seen.” Bierstadt by this time had finger on the commercial pulse and used that knowledge to his advantage.
Bierstadt remained in Europe for four years, including extended stays in the Bernese Alps and in Italy. He return din the late summer of 1857 and set about establishing himself. He set up a studio in New Bedford and advertised for students to learn monochromatic painting. (He got four.) He converted his European studies to oils and showed them in his hometown, Boston and made his first submission to the National Academy of Design. (It was a picture then called Lake Luzerne, which now cannot be identified.) The New York papers gave his work missed reviews, and one, The Crayon, though commending his “command of landscapes,” remarked on his tendency shown from this beginning to use large canvasses: “The same ability on a smaller scale would be more roundly appreciated.” That painting was one of the centerpieces of a show he mounted in New Bedford he called “An Exhibition in Painting,” which in addition to 14 of his own works, included paintings of Frederick E. Church, Thomas Cole, J.F. Cropsey, Emanuel Leutze, and Andreas Achenbach.
His interest in visual devices (like the Magic Lantern) led him to tinkering with the stereograph camera. He conceived the idea that its use in the American West would allow him to create landscapes that would be commercial valuable in the East. So he decided by the end of 1858 to join Colonel Frederick West Landler’s annual survey of western routes and native relations for the Overland Trail. He intended to specialize in wild scenes and “picturesque facts of Indian life.” His trip lasted through most of 1859. He met the party in St. Louis and travelled through the territories as far away as to what is now Wyoming. When he returned he took up residence at the new (and soon to be famous) artist Studio Building on West 10th Street in New York City. He was also able on his return to reduce his brothers from their failed work working business. (During his trip the valuable wood inventory in their shop had been destroyed by fire.) They became photographers and stenographers thereafter.
Beirstad worked on his Western canvases in his New York studio, but me with only moderate success over the next few years. His contributions to the National Academy Exhibitions went unnoticed. His first found no buyers and he gave it away. He tried his hand a war photography. In the fall of 1861 under pass from General Winfield Scott he and Leutze and his brother Edward visited the area around Washington, D.C. Back in New York he converted his sketches and photos into paintings. He even did a sprawling landscape showing the bombardment of Fort Sumter (in a distance from the Charleston harbor, as he imagined it perhaps from Harper’s Weekly illustrations of it).
Not having mastered how to render the human form, much less a figure in motion, Bierstadt’s combat pictures were unconvincing and his landscape approach was unable to capture the drama, horror or tragedy of the conflict. In any event, Bierstadt was not interested in the Union cause. In 1862 he was beginning to receive critical attention (with his Sunshine and Shadow), and proposed another trip West. In 1862 he was beginning to receive critical attention (with his Sunshine and Shadow), and proposed another trip West. Evidently he was planning to go with Harvard paleontologist Alpheus Hyatt, when the latter graduated the following Spring of 1862. Bierstadt went to Washington to obtain a letter of recommendation to present to U.S. Army forts in the West. He prevailed on Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to write a letter to the Secretary of War requesting that the U.S. “Govt. should do every thing possible to promote” Bierstadt’s expedition. It did not produce a result from the War Department. Bierstadt blamed Sumner. He expressed his contempt for the government’s excessive preoccupation with the war (which was not yet being fought for emancipation) and for Sumner in an outpouring of self-pity and racist bile to Hyatt: “I think if Sumner had taken a little more interest int h matter in the outset we should have got what we wanted, but he seems to be so much absorbed in the Paleontology of the nigger that he forgets there are other fossils in other parts of the U.S. …” He cancelled his plans, and instead travelled to New Hampshire’s White Mountains to paint.
The next year Bierstadt was drafted in the call up of 1863. He paid the bounty to provide a proxy and thus avoided military duty. (Hyatt enlisted. He would later become an eminent naturalist.) He decided that his fortune lie in another Western trip. This trip, which took place in 1863, was designed only for sketches and studies, no stereography. This expedition to him to Denver, Salt Lake City, Lake Tahoe, San Francisco, Yosemite, Portland and the Cascade Mountains. It was the landscapes that emerged from this trip that ensured his fame and fortune. These were the ones where he married his personal “luminism” to dramatic scenery. Over time it would become cliché, but before then he earned an astonishing amount of money. In 1965, he married and went on a 2-year honeymoon. When he returned he and his bride moved into the mansion he had constructed, Malkasten, in Irving-on-Hudson in Westchester County, New York. The estate had 35 rooms with a studio 60 feet long and with 35 foot tall windows overlooking the Hudson River. His father-in-law would build him another house in Waterville in Oneida County, New York, and Bierstadt would take temporary lodgings and studios in San Francisco, Paris and elsewhere. More than secure financially, Bierstadt would spend the rest of his life attempting to outdo the critical acclaim that Frederick E. Church had achieved. He would not succeed at this.
That is enough biography to put the Mattatuck exhibition in context. The show is a fairly small one, consisting of 17 paintings (and some stereographs in a glass case). The exhibition was organized by the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill New York, and curated by Annette Blaugrund (former director of the National Academy Museum). It consists of a representative grouping of Bierstadt’s works depicting scenes in New England and New York. The paintings range from shortly after his return from Europe in 1858 to 1886, when he had established his reputation (and his style had become ossified). It focuses on landscapes that were not central to his ambition or his reputation, and thus show what his underlying craft was composed of. And when we no longer confront the intentional dramatic and the idiosyncratic uses of light, we can draw some conclusions about the art of Bierstadt.
The first thing that strikes one looking into Bierstadt’s early work is that there is no painting about the place he came from. New Bedford was the center of the New England whaling industry, the industry that his family depended on as was growing up. He never completed a painting about whaling vessels or the men involved in them, or the trades that supported them. In fact, there is no work about New Bedford at all. Bierstadt was always looking for the exotic, as those the place were the thing of interest, not the artists’ view of it. When one looks carefully at what he finds interesting in his early pictures, one finds that he is harkening back to something, not in the landscape but in some image which looks similar to the vista he is painting.
The earliest paining in the exhibit is a good example. Autumn in the Conway Meadows is ostensibly about a specific place in New Hampshire. But on close inspection, things are out of place. First, the deer do not appear to be the white-tailed deer that inhabit the area. The buck’s antlers are too large and not branching. Rather they look more like deer common in Europe. Bierstadt’s inattentiveness to animal form is common. Around the same time he painted a historical painting he entitled Gosnald at Cuttyhunk, 1602, which can be seen at the Whaling Museum in New Bedford. The same deer are there, closer to the viewer, and it is even more obvious that they are not North American animals. Not only does the buck have the same non-native antlers, the doe does not have the characteristic white tail. Even in his Western pictures which were supposed to illustrate the “wild,’ his portrayal of animals is odd. The antelope are too long and the bear (for example, in Mount Corcoran, above) are too rounded, pig-like. Is this because he added the animals from some sketch he took of other work? That conclusion is strengthened when we look at the nearest mountain in the background of Autumn in Conway Meadows. There we see a distinctly looking European castle, one that doesn’t exist in New Hampshire. What was it doing there? Did Bierstadt not think the scene as it existed was interesting enough? Or was the castle simply part of what Bierstadt thought when with a distant mountain in a painting?
The curiousness of his compositional sameness can be seen in the exhibit’s View Near Newport. Much as that painting evokes a particular place at a particular time, so much is it odd to compare it to an earlier work said to depict Capri, Fishing Boats at Capri, which hangs t the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Not only is the point of view the same, with rising landmass to the (viewer’s) left and an ocean to the right, but also the ocean cuts the same kind of semi-circle into the land and holds the same sail-boats off in the distance. And the overcast sky is almost identical. The earlier painting in Boston, completed in 1857, presumably was based on sketches from his time in Italy. It also has many figures on shore, something that he eliminated over time. But how could such different places have such similarities to a supposedly realistic landscaper? It is of course not a crime to paint a landscape that really doesn’t exist, but why assign specific locations to them? Why purport to be showing what really can be seen? Was it simply because art consumers did not accept the artist as a creator? Or was it that Bierstadt was more comfortable repeating compositions and elements?
The show’s selections are all thoughtfully made and all produce questions to those who thought they knew Bierstadt. Even when easy truisms are presented, the show has enough context to shower doubt on them. At the center (temporally) of the exhibition are two views of Claremont, New Hampshire. One was pointed in 1862 (owned by the Fruitlands Museum) and another in 1868 (owned by the Berkshire Museum). That segment of Bierstadt critical opinion which holds that his work reflected some debt felt understanding of the country urged that the earlier one presented the Norther, Union cause as the one of peace and harmony and the later one reflected on the riven condition of our national fabric as evidenced by the broken trunks in the foreground. Even if one were ignorant of Bierstadt’s cavalier attitude toward the war to suppress the slaveholders’ rebellion, the juxtaposition of the two paintings demonstrates the absurdity of the distinction.
The two views, six years apart, were not meant as a comparison. Bierstardt makes no reference to the earlier work either run composition or title. The fact that there are broken branches in the foreground of the later picture no more signifies a social comment than the broken tree in the (viewer’s) left mid ground in the earlier landscape. In any event, the cattle seem not less concerned, even if the grass is higher in the second painting.
Among the other works at the exhibit are four of the 200 or so studies for the large painting Emerald Pond, perhaps the only significant omission of an exhibition of Bierstadt’s Eastern paintings (which is now held in the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virgina). Bierstadt painted this one monumental work of the East once he intuited the nostalgic appeal of a view of the pond to the wealthy vacationers at this White Mountain resort. The care he lavished on composing the work with its intricate studies , shows that despite the fact that Bierstadt’s primary goal was popular and financial rewards he was nonetheless a consummate craftsman in attaining his goals.
The last (chronologically) painting of the exhibit is his Autumn Woods (1886), normally seen in the New York Historical Society. The work shows a central lake surrounded by trees of flaming bright-colored foliage. It is the stylized ending of his mechanical production of landscapes. When the painting was shown in London, critics carped at the bright colors as though it were an offense against taste. The London Post‘s correspondent assured everyone that North American trees turned brilliant colors in the Fall. Like most journalistic critics, the Post‘s correspondent had not given enough reflection to the subject—verisimilitude was not something Bierstadt value (or even should have valued). The real question was whether the departure from verisimilitude was motivated by aesthetic or commercial considerations. The Mattatuck exhibit will give a good basis for making an informed decision.
The Mattatuck show runs until March 2. For those unfamiliar with the museum, rest assured that it is a serious, although small, one. If you Bierstadt is not enough to bring you to Waterbury (a city plagued by both de-industrialization and more than its share of political corruption), consider that the museum has an extensive selection of the Whitney’s Alex Katz works. There is no catalog of the works in the Bierstadt exhibit, so you must see them in person, if at all.
In addition, the area (which includes Hartford and the Five College towns of Western Massachusetts) has an extensive collection of the Hudson River School (of which Bierstadt is lumped, for reasons that involve collectors’ and curators’ preferences). If (as I suspect) you will not board Metro North to experience this footnote to art history, I hope to give shortly a summary of the art to be found there.
Nancy K. Anderson, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise (New York: Brooklyn Museum/Hudson Hills: 1990).
Sarah Cash (ed.), Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945 (Manchester, Vt: Hudson Hills Press: 2011).
James Thomas Flexner, The Wilder Image: The Painting of America’s Native School from Thomas Cole to Winslow Homer (Boston: Little, Brown: ).
Gordon Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West (New York: Harrison House with Harry N. Abrams, Inc: 1975).
Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America. (London: The Harvill Press: 1998).
Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser & Amy Ellis, Maureen Miesmer (eds.), Hudson River School: Masterworks from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art (New Haven: Yale University Press: 2003).
Peter E. Palmquist, Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide: A Biographical Dictionary, 1839-1865 (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, ©2005).
Edward P. Richardson, Painting in America (New York: T.Y. Crowell: 1956).