When he sold his large painting of The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak in 1865, Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) was at the height of his career, and of financial and critical success. What his public and patrons wanted was more, and Bierstadt delivered.
The following year, in A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie, he used his full array of skills and sketches from his second expedition to the west in 1863, to express the sublime, and fill the viewer with awe and trembling. The foreground shows a pastoral valley floor with a First Nation camp, in mottled light. Some people and their animals are seen making haste to return from the pastures to the shelter of the camp. A small rocky outcrop has trees straggling over it, which are silhouetted against the brilliant sunlight on the lake behind, in the middle distance.
Behind the lake the land rises sharply, with rock crags also bright in the sunshine. In the background the land is blanketed by indigo and black stormclouds. Those clouds are piled high, obscuring much of Mount Rosalie (named by Bierstadt after his wife), but its ice-clad peaks show proud, high up above the storm, with patches of blue sky above and beyond them. A single large bird, an eagle perhaps, is seen in silhouette, high above the lake.
In 1867, Bierstadt travelled to London, where he was honoured with a private reception by Queen Victoria, who viewed two of his landscape paintings.
While he was travelling in Europe, he continued to work in a series of rented studios. When in Rome during the winter of 1867-68, he painted Among the Sierra Nevada, California. This was first exhibited in London, won a gold medal in Berlin, and itself toured Europe on a wave of critical appreciation. This was based on his visit to the Sierra Nevada in 1863, and in 1873 was purchased for Helen Huntington Hull, the granddaughter of William Brown Dinsmore, to grace a wall in The Locusts, the family estate in Dutchess County, New York.
Another of his views of America painted during his European tour is this of Glen Ellis Falls (1869), near Gorham in New Hampshire.
Bierstadt reached Naples in time to witness an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which he painted. Sadly his original has been lost, but this chromolithograph of it survives, showing Mount Vesuvius at Midnight (1869).
Bierstadt opts for a traditional and Romantic view of the volcano, but does use the device of the moon, with the ghostly remains of buried trees and ruins in the foreground. It’s not clear when Bierstadt saw this eruption, though: this is claimed to show an eruption in January 1868, but the significant activity that year wasn’t until the second half of November, by which time he had moved on.
He continued to paint the wilder parts of New Hampshire, in The Emerald Pool (1870), which shows in the distance Mount Washington, which reaches an altitude of 1,917 metres (6,288 feet). This painting is thought to have been bought by the Californian businessman Leland Stanford, who founded and funded Stanford University.
Bierstadt turned his attention to the West Coast, with this detailed oil sketch View of Donner Lake, California in 1872, painted on paper.
In May 1872, Bierstadt visited the Farallon Islands, a group of uninhabited rocks thirty miles to the west of San Francisco. From this came his dramatic Seals on the Rocks, Farallon Islands (c 1872-73), one of a short series which he painted of the islands in those years. When he was in Europe, he had most probably seen one of Gustave Courbet’s late paintings of breaking waves, which may have influenced him to paint what has become one of Bierstadt’s most famous works.
In 1876, his wife was diagnosed as suffering from tuberculosis. The couple moved to spend as much of the year as possible in Nassau in the Bahamas, although he continued to travel to the North American continent to make further drawings and sketches in front of his motifs.
When he was in the Bahamas, he was inspired to paint The Shore of the Turquoise Sea, showing a wave breaking on the coast there, which he exhibited in 1878. He has made a link back to earlier paintings with the subtle inclusion of some wreckage.
He also painted a second, larger development from this work after 1878, now exhibited in the Haggin Museum in Stockton, CA, as After a Norther. Although he had been brought up in the whaling port of New Bedford, MA, only about thirty of his total of around five hundred catalogued paintings are coastal views.
During his travels in America, Bierstadt became mindful of the changes which Europeans were bringing to the continent, pointing out the imminent demise of many of the First Nation peoples, for example. He expressed this in another of his well-known paintings, The Last of the Buffalo, from about 1888.
We are fortunate that some of his preparatory paintings for this large work have survived. This Sketch for ‘The Last of the Buffalo’ (c 1888) was painted on cardboard.
This larger Study for ‘The Last of the Buffalo’ (c 1888) was painted on canvas.
The finished painting is larger still, and sets that action in a more typical grand panorama, with bleached skulls and dying buffalo in the foreground. In the middle distance are hundreds of animals in the herd, suggesting that extinction was by no means the only outcome. Their numbers fell from more than sixty million to just 541 in the century to 1889.
By the time that Bierstadt died in early 1902, his huge realist landscapes had largely been forgotten. Interest in them revived during the 1960s, when some of his smaller plein air studies were exhibited. There are now over thirty thousand wild buffalo in North America; they too have been saved from extinction.