One of the greatest painters to portray the breathtaking American West, Albert Bierstadt was born in Solingen, Prussia (modern-day Germany) in January 1830. Even though he was born on European land, he is considered American, since his parents brought him back to their homeland, in Bedford, Massachusetts at only one year of age. Bierstadt would eventually return to Prussia at the age of 23 to study painting in Dusseldorf. In 1857, the artist went back to the USA and began teaching art techniques, like drawing and painting, but eventually turned all of his efforts into painting.
Bierstadt’s passion for portraying landscapes grew as he produced, and during this period his paintings became more dramatic. The landscapes looked to be staged and almost theatrical, in a way. His way of portraying what he saw was not only a mere representation of nature, but a fusion of emotional depth, a genuinely psychological experience aimed to impress the public as well as his patrons. His immense artworks were well received by the critics as well, and in 1858, Bierstadt was awarded an honorary membership at the National Academy of Design with his portrayals of the Swiss landscapes, like the painting entitled Lake Lucerne Switzerland.
The Hudson River School began in the 1850’s with a group of landscapes painters in New York, who were influenced by the Romanticist aesthetics – a movement Bierstadt joined. The fraternity was founded mainly by Thomas Cole, who traveled to New York to focus on landscape painting. Cole’s greatest inspirations were Thomas Doughty, J.M.W. Turner, John Martin, as well as Bierstadt himself. Most artists who joined the Hudson River School were academically trained and worked at the first location designated for artists to work in NYC, called the Studio Building. The group got its name because they often gathered alongside the Hudson River to paint. They also painted at surrounding areas like Adirondack and White Mountains, as well as the Catskill.
In 1859, the painter took his first of many trips to the American West in search of different landscapes, which he sketched out the views and finished with large-scale oil painting back in his studio. With the help of Colonel Frederic Landers and his crew, Bierstadt was able to cross present-day Wyoming. The group traveled through the Oregon Trail which was extremely busy at the time, recording the migration of almost twenty thousand people from both directions. Bierstadt was able to return to the great West in 1863, and created an emotional bond with the Native American tribes, like the Pawnee, the Arapahoe, the Sioux, and especially the Shoshone, which appear in one of his first landscapes, entitled The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak.
The American painter was criticized for incorporating Native American people in his landscapes, making Bierstadt question how he would be able to get the plight of these people in the narrative of his work. He wished to portray the changes he saw in the American West in his art – the Native Americans were being forced from their lands, while thousands of bison were being killed. It was then that the artist began to focus on the image of the buffalo in his grandiose landscapes, shedding light on the importance of wildlife, habitat and cultural preservation.