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Albert Bierstadt Biography

He has been criticized for romanticizing the West and its people, yet his paintings have endured the test of time. This article discusses the painter, Albert Bierstadt, and his controversial art.
ArtHearty Staff
By Earl Hunsinger

Although he was born in Germany and lived in the Eastern United States for most of his life, his paintings idealized the untouched western frontier. Along with the work of Frederick Church and other painters of the Hudson River school, his paintings have been said to encourage an ever-increasing westward expansion. As the Time article Manifest Destiny in Paint says, his paintings, along with those of Church, were "the pictorial equivalent to the myth of Manifest Destiny." Many argue that his paintings helped destroy the very beauty and culture that they depicted.

Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Germany on January 7, 1830. Although his family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he was two years old, he returned to Germany in 1853 to study painting with members of the Düsseldorf School. Upon his return to the United States, he began painting in New England and New York before traveling west with a government land surveyor in 1859. The sketches he made on this trip later formed the basis for numerous paintings.

Included in these were the paintings Thunderstorm and Indian Encampment, Shoshone Village. In his book, Albert Bierstadt, Matthew Biagell indicates that there are at least five design characteristics of Thunderstorm that can be attributed to the use of photographic sources during its creation. He says that this type of organization "marked a new and significant compositional format for artists," but wonders why it was not exploited more fully. He also calls Indian Encampment, Shoshone Village a romanticized painting since it shows Native Americans in a very peaceful domestic setting.

Bierstadt returned to the west again in 1863. Although his paintings were very popular with the public and sold for large sums, he wasn't as popular with the critics. In part, this was because his paintings were much larger than those of his contemporaries, which the critics felt was a sign of egotism. In addition, critics felt that his subjects were romanticized.

In spite of any romanticism or aggrandizement evident in his work, his paintings are still very popular today. For example, in 2001 Christie's auction house sold his painting A Sioux Camp Near Laramie Peak (ca. 1859) for USD 941,000.

Bierstadt was a prolific artist. The exact number of paintings that he created in his lifetime seems to be unknown, but some estimate that there could be as many as 4,000, most of which have survived. It would be difficult to collect and display all of them, even in print form.

Propagandist or not, Bierstadt was a talented artist whose works are still being enjoyed today. As well as being impressive works of art, his depictions of a vanishing frontier and an untouched wilderness, along with the people living there, made important contributions to American history.