Albert Bierstadt’s 1855 canvas A Rustic Mill is characteristic of the lush, verdant and lavish landscapes, all rendered in immense sizes, that appealed to casual art collectors of late nineteenth century America. Bierstadt has become engrained in the American national canon as the documenter of the American West, accompanying pioneers on the Westward Expansion. In many cases the first white American to capture such scenes, the artist’s reproductions of sweeping vistas and rolling landscapes made him the one of the dominant figure of the Hudson River School, an informal grouping of painters. Influenced by the aesthetic concerns of Romanticism, the Hudson River School became known for an idiosyncratic style characterized by luminous lighting, aerial perspective, invisible brushwork, and tranquil idyllic views that would later become known as Luminism. Although preceding Impressionism, Luminism has no relation to the French aesthetic of capturing the effects of light, instead Bierstadt and his contemporaries were attracted by depicting things as they should be, not as they are.
During the mid-1850s Bierstadt was travelling through Europe, learning, teaching and taking in the variety of stunning views on offer in Germany and the Alps. The mountainous region affected the artist’s aesthetic sensibility for the rest of his life, and his A Rustic Mill maybe have been captured during this time. Certainly dating to a period before Bierstadt became known as the visionary spokesman of the American Expansion, within this canvas one can see the artist’s ability to conjure a distant Eden out of an agricultural reality. But Bierstadt’s success hinged upon his skills as a showman and businessman, exploiting the popular mood of the time, and capitalizing on the emotional triggers evident in poetry, literature, and art. Thus, Bierstadt’s paintings are suffused with a distinct melodrama, resulting in imagined reproductions of the American West that would attract a surge of pioneers off the beaten track.
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