Albert Bierstadt’s Rocky Mountains


Albert Bierstadt.  “The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak.”  New York: Edward Bierstadt, 1866.  Steel engraving by James Smillie.  16 1/2 x 28.  Some light waterstains in bottom margin; conserved.  Otherwise, very good condition.

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The earliest art of the American west tended to focus on the Indians and their culture.  After mid-century, this theme slowly gave way to more of a concern with landscape and genre subjects.  Perhaps the most influential artist associated with this change was Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902).  He was born in Germany, near Düsseldorf, grew up in the United States, and in his twenties studied at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany.  There he was deeply impressed by the tradition of heroic painting for which that school was famous.  In 1858, soon after returning to America, Bierstadt paid his own way in order to accompany General F.W. Lander on an expedition to improve the wagon route from Fort Laramie to California.  Bierstadt was tremendously impressed with the Rocky Mountains, which provided him with the subject matter for his most famous paintings.  Bierstadt passed through the Rockies in the nascent days of the great American expansion west; the transcontinental railroad, the pony express, and most of the Indian wars lay in the future.  Thus Bierstadt saw and absorbed an almost pristine frontier, for which the rocky peaks provided an emphatic exclamation.

After he returned east, Bierstadt straight away began to work on his western canvases, exhibiting his first Rocky Mountain painting in 1860 at the National Academy, where it was very well received.  Thus encouraged, Bierstadt continued to produce large, dramatic mountain landscapes, which reached a peak with his large and sensational 1863 canvas, “The Rocky Mountains.”  This painting immediately received popular acclaim, establishing Bierstadt, in the minds of some of the public and critics, as the greatest American landscape artist of his day.  This painting traveled widely and was purchased by James McHenry for the then fantastic sum of $25,000.  Following this, Bierstadt received many commissions for new works, was acclaimed at home and abroad, and hobnobbed with the rich and royal.  His canvases continued to dramatically portray the awe-inspiring grandeur of the Rockies.  His were “the first paintings to capture successfully the wonder and excitement that the artist and other early trail blazers felt when they confronted the spectacular western scenery.”  (Trenton & Hassrick, The Rocky Mountains, Oklahoma, 1983)

The success of “The Rocky Mountain” painting spurred Bierstadt to ask James Smillie, one of the best American engravers, to make an engraving of the image.  Smillie took three years to produce this magnificent print.

(more from Albert Bierstadt, “Sunlight and Shadow“)