March 14, 2015

Albert Bierstadt's unnatural second nature

Born in Germany in 1830, Albert Bierstadt was brought to the United States at the age of one by his parents. He developed a taste for art early and made clever crayon sketches in his youth. On his twentieth birthday, he began to paint in oils. After a trip to Germany where he studied painting for several years he returned to the US where in 1858 he began painting scenes in New England and upstate New York, including in the Hudson River valley.

In 1860 he was elected a member of the National Academy; he received medals in Austria, Bavaria, Belgium, and Germany. During the American Civil War, Bierstadt paid for a substitute to serve in his place when he was drafted in 1863.

Throughout the 1860s, Bierstadt used studies from his many westward travels as the source for large-scale paintings for exhibition. He continued to visit the American West throughout his career. In 1867 he traveled to London, where he exhibited two landscape paintings in a private reception with Queen Victoria.

A trip to the Yellowstone region in 1871 yielded numerous drawings of the area's geysers and picturesque topography. These works were instrumental in convincing the United States Congress to pass the Yellowstone Park Bill in 1872, thus establishing the first national park in the world.

Despite his popular success, Bierstadt was criticized by some contemporaries for the romanticism evident in his choices of subject and his use of light was felt to be excessive. His exhibition pieces were brilliantly crafted images that glorified the American West as a land of promise.

In 1882 Bierstadt's studio at Irvington, New York, was destroyed by fire, resulting in the loss of many of his paintings. By the time of his death in 1902, the taste for epic landscape painting had long since subsided. Bierstadt was then largely forgotten.

"In all things of nature there is something of the marvelous." -Aristotle

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