An article from Plein Air Magazine.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
We like to believe the great plein air painters of the past didn’t face anything like today’s struggle for recognition, slow sales in a tough economy, or bitter competition between painters; but one only has to consider the career of Albert Bierstadt to know the situation wasn’t all that different a hundred years ago.
“Autumn in the Sierras,” by Albert Bierstadt, 1873, oil, 72 x 120. Collection the City of Plainfield, NJToday we think of Albert Bierstadt as one of the great artist explorers who carried his painting equipment into the American West and documented the people, culture, flora, and fauna he discovered. We know he then used those oil sketches in his New York and San Francisco studios to paint large-scale, romantic scenes of landscapes that were not well known to a proud, young nation. While all of that may be true, the sad part of the biography is that despite his notoriety, Bierstadt had a great deal of trouble selling his most important paintings. He declared bankruptcy in 1895 when the art world had little use for his dramatic paintings, and two of his major paintings were virtually lost on the walls of the court house in Plainfield, New Jersey.
“The Landing of Columbus at San Salvador,” by Albert Bierstadt, 1893, oil, 80 x 120. Collection the City of Plainfield, NJ
“We do not think of Bierstadt today as a painter of history,” wrote art historian Linda S. Ferber in a 2002 exhibition catalog. “His fame is primarily as a landscape painter; especially in his role as an artist-explorer documenting the terrain, flora, fauna, and indigenous peoples of the American West. Bierstadt’s modern reputation also rests upon his achievements as a brilliant pleinairist, as a pioneering photographer, and as an entrepreneurial showman.”
The aspect of Bierstadt’s painting that contributed to his early success was also a contributing factor to his downfall. His massive canvases seemed to show an accurate and detailed representation of the West, but what impressed people who paid to see them as they traveled throughout the country was the dramatic exaggerations of the landscape. “With his rooting in the romantic Hudson River and Düsseldorf schools, Bierstadt embellished nature to convince both enthusiastic Easterners and skeptical Europeans that North America had unparalleled natural wonders,” Ferber explained.
“Lower Yellowstone Falls,” by Albert Bierstadt, 1881, oil
Albert and Mary Stewart Bierstadt, photograph. Collection Evan Hopkins Turner
The drama and romance in Bierstadt’s landscapes was not appreciated by late 19th century collectors who were buying work by the French and American Impressionists. Those buyers prefers landscapes that presented a more intimate, colorful, and painterly view of familiar scenes. In 1919, J. Ackerman Coles donated two of Bierstadt’s large paintings (“Autumn in the Sierras” and “The Landing of Columbus at San Salvador”) to the city of Plainfield, New Jersey and they were hung in a court house where visitors came to deal with legal issues, not to view works of art. It wasn’t until 1971 that the paintings went on view in the diplomatic reception rooms of the U.S. State Department in Washington, and were then included in several museum exhibitions. Bierstadt died in 1902 as a broken and unappreciated painter.