Get to Know: Albert Bierstadt's Mountain Lake

Get to Know: Albert Bierstadt's Mountain Lake

When will the object go on view?

Mountain Lake is currently on view in the western American landscape gallery on Level 7 of the North Building.

Why did the DAM acquire the object?

Albert Bierstadt is one of the most noteworthy American landscape artists of the nineteenth century. This painting is representative of his important role in American art and of his artistic process.

In line with his training at the Dusseldorf Academy in Germany, which emphasized painting outdoors, Bierstadt painted Mountain Lake at the base of Mount Evans in Colorado in the summer of 1863. Like many of his plein air (on-site) paintings, Mountain Lake was a preliminary oil sketch. Bierstadt took it back to his studio in New York to use to create the larger-scaled, more grandiose Storm in the Rocky Mountains—Mount Rosalie, which is in the Brooklyn Art Museum. (Bierstadt called the peak Mount Rosalie after Rosalie Osborne Ludlow, the wife of Fitz Hugh Ludlow, with whom he was infatuated and eventually married himself. In 1870 the peak was officially named Mount Evans.) This process of sketching in oil outdoors and using the study to compose a larger, often exaggerated landscape painting back in his studio was typical of Bierstadt’s process.

How does the object complement or enhance the collection?

The acquisition of an Albert Bierstadt painting is a rare and exciting opportunity for any museum, and Mountain Lake is the first Bierstadt painting of a Colorado subject in the Denver Art Museum’s permanent collection. Hanging alongside other nineteenth-century landscape paintings by artists such as Thomas Moran, Worthington Whittredge, and Charles Partridge Adams, it helps tell the story of the expansion of the American West and the role that artists played in influencing the public imagination with their unique interpretations of the landscape.

What’s most notable or exciting about this object?

The naturalism of Mountain Lake is striking in comparison to the finished studio work of the same subject, Storm in the Rocky Mountains—Mount Rosalie, which was completed in 1866. Bierstadt used artistic license to render the final painting. For example, he tripled the elevation of the peak seen in the clouds and exaggerated the shapes of many rock formations to add dramatic effect. Mountain Lake, in contrast, is exemplary of Bierstadt’s plein air painting technique in its direct and faithful depiction of the Colorado landmark.

What other objects by this artist are/have been on view at the DAM?

The Denver Art Museum owns Wind River Country, a painting from 1860 of a sunlit view of the Wind River Mountains in western Wyoming. We also have several loans on view including: Estes Park, Longs Peak of 1876 lent by the Denver Public Library’s Western History Department; and, Yosemite painted about 1870 from the Colorado School of Mines.

Where else may readers have seen the object/artist's work?

The Denver Art Museum is the best place in Colorado to see a Bierstadt landscape painting in person. Regionally, museums like the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, the Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas have Bierstadt paintings on display.

This painting was reproduced in the article “Albert Bierstadt’s Colorado” by Nicole A. Parks in the Petrie Institute of Western American Art’s Western Passages publication Colorado: The Artist’s Muse, available in The Shop at the Denver Art Museum and our online shop.

What inspired the artist to create the object?

In 1863 Albert Bierstadt traveled west for the second time, seeking his next great artistic muse. His first trip in 1859 had been as part of a government survey expedition, but his second trip was in the company of his journalist-friend Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who had promoted Bierstadt’s work in his writings in the New York Evening Post. The two ventured from their homes on the East Coast and traveled through Colorado to reach California. Ludlow documented the trip and published his writings in the 1870 book The Heart of the Continent. For Bierstadt, the trip would result in some of his most renowned landscape paintings.

In Denver, Bierstadt befriended Rocky Mountain News editor William N. Byers, who soon learned of Bierstadt’s desire to find a majestic Rocky Mountain scene. Byers made it his mission to surprise Bierstadt with an especially spectacular alpine view. In Byers’s own words, “I knew that at a certain point the trail emerged from the timber, and all the beauty, the grandeur, the sublimity, and whatever else there might be in sight at the time, of the great gorge and the rugged and ragged amphitheater at its head, would open to view in an instant like the rolling up of a curtain. I had avoided saying anything about this, because I wanted to enjoy Bierstadt’s surprise.” Upon seeing this stunning view, Bierstadt made sketches, including Mountain Lake, which would ultimately inspire Storm in the Rocky Mountains—Mount Rosalie, one of his most powerful paintings.

What was going on in the movement/genre when the artwork was created?

Nineteenth-century American landscape paintings reflect the broad and complex national mood during a time of great historical change. Two popular ideologies that had profound effects on the landscape paintings of Colorado–and more generally on art of the American West – were romanticism and manifest destiny. Romantic philosophies found expression in all the arts and were especially evident in the visual arts in depictions of nature as uncontrollable, unpredictable, and a place where God was present. Landscape painters often created works that reflected imagination and emotion and often leaned toward the sublime. Manifest destiny–the belief that white pioneers had a God-given right to expand into the west–dominated the American psyche in the 1800s and helped shape landscape painting as a genre. These often panoramic visions of seemingly “untouched” landscapes were considered evidence of America’s destiny and provided encouragement for pioneers to fulfill this so-called right of “settling” the West.

Bierstadt’s larger, finished studio works like Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Estes Park, Longs Peak, and Yosemite are examples of his signature “Great Pictures,” which were mammoth in scale, sold for exorbitant prices, traveled on exhibition, and were reproduced as engravings or lithographs to be sold to the public. Through technical acuity, painterly sophistication, and the use of oil studies like Mountain Lake, Bierstadt created hugely successful, romanticized, and sublime landscape paintings.

Image credit: Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830–1902), Mountain Lake, 1863. Oil paint on paper on panel. Gift of HRH Prince Bandar Bin Sultan Bin Abdulaziz, 2012.278

Nicole A. Parks was the curatorial assistant in the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum.