- Albert Bierstadt, American, 1830-1902
- Born: Solingen, Germany
- United States
About the Artist
Albert Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Germany in 1830, and was brought to New York at the age of two. He returned to Germany when he was twenty-one years old to study at the Düsseldorf Academy. Eight years later, in 1859, Bierstadt made his first trip to the Rocky Mountains when he joined a government expedition led by Colonel Frederick W. Lander (for whom Lander, Wyoming was named). Following this trip, he opened a studio in New York, where he drew from his sketches, photographs, specimens, and Indian artifacts to create large landscape paintings. Through his artwork, Bierstadt introduced Easterners to the scenery of the Rockies. While still in his early thirties, Bierstadt became one of the most successful and highly paid painters in the United States.
What Inspired It
The Wind River Range is part of the Rocky Mountains, located in western Wyoming. Bierstadt identified the river here as the Sweetwater River, and the prominent mountain as Fremont’s Peak, known today as Temple Peak. Bierstadt liked the Wind River area enough to return there after he left the Lander expedition. As one of America’s early artist-explorers, he was looking for personal adventure and hoping to establish his artistic “territory.” The Wind River area is the subject of many of his works. Around the time Wind River Country was painted (1860), interest in the American West had reached a high point. This was in part due to western movement along the Oregon Trail; and to the writers, artists, and surveyors who had reported on the region over the past thirty years. Interest in finding American landscapes that would rival the European Alps was also growing. Bierstadt’s paintings satisfied on both counts—they delivered both heightened grandeur and specific details and places.
Bierstadt liked the theatricality of a large painting. Wind River Country measures 42 ½” wide x 30 ½” tall, and some of his later pictures were four times that size. Sometimes, Bierstadt would show his work on a stage with dramatic lighting and viewers could pay admission to look at the painting with opera glasses.
Bierstadt was very interested in early photography, shooting photos on his journeys west that he could view through a stereoscope for a three-dimensional effect. Working with photographic source material in his studio may have contributed to Bierstadt’s convincing illusion of space. Looking at the mountains we can see clearly that some are close to our vantage point, while others are far away.
Warm colors highlight areas touched by the sun. The viewer’s eyes are drawn to lighter areas, particularly the mountains in the distance.
Bierstadt guides the viewer through the painting by arranging elements of the scenery along diagonal lines.
The foreground is full of details—carefully rendered foliage, rocks, a hollow log. In his studio, Bierstadt drew from multiple field sketches and photos to compose a pleasing picture. The scene we see here is a composite view, not an individual scene that the artist witnessed.
We see nature here as untouched by humans. The landscape appears rather inaccessible; there is no clear way one would be able to navigate through the scene.
The image of a grizzly bear feeding on an antelope contributes to the sense of scale and adds drama to the scene.
Bierstadt uses several pictorial techniques to suggest the importance of the distant peak. It is placed only slightly off-center, and has framing elements on all sides—trees, clouds, and the darker mountains in front of it are parted aside. The hazy air makes the peak lighter and brighter.
Quick Classroom Ideas
- Sometimes, Bierstadt would show his work on a stage with dramatic lighting and viewers could pay admission to look at the painting with opera glasses. Have students make their own landscapes in a shoebox and add a red velvet curtain.
- In his studio, Bierstadt drew from multiple field sketches and photos to compose a pleasing picture. Have students sketch elements of nature from different areas around the school. Back in the classroom, have them combine their sketches into a single, hybrid landscape.
- Have students think about ways in which Bierstadt could have constructed the scene differently. Since Bierstadt composed this scene from multiple sketches, he had to make decisions about where to place certain details. Have students cut up copies of the painting and rearrange the different elements. They can also add other elements into the picture (i.e. more trees or animals). Would the image of the bear be more noticeable if it were in a different spot? What would it look like if the trees were in the middle of the picture?
- Divide the class into three different teams: the sky team, the land team, and the wildlife team. Have students either go outside or use examples from magazines to sketch images according to the team they’re on. Have each student choose their favorite sketch. As a class, create a new composition based on the students’ sketches. Think about the way that Bierstadt arranged his composition—something far away that’s hard to get at, something tall on one side, details in the foreground.