The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak by Albert Bierstadt

The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak by Albert Bierstadt (1863)

My Daily Art Display today features two Americans and a mountain.  The two Americans are the landscape artist Albert Bierstadt and the US Army brigadier general and explorer Frederick West Lander.  The mountain in question is Lander’s Peak, named after the explorer.

Albert Bierstadt was a German-American painter and his main contribution to American art was his landscapes of the newly discovered American West.  He was born in Solingen, Germany in 1830 and three years later he and his family emigrated to America establishing their first American home in New Bedford Massachusetts. As a teenager he acquired a love for art.  In his early twenties he returned to his homeland and studied art at the Düsseldorf School in Düsseldorf.  On his return to America in 1857 he turned his artistic attention to the landscape of New England and upstate New York and became part of the Hudson River School of painters.  This group of 19th century artists was influenced by the Romanticism movement and their landscape paintings concentrated on the lands around the Hudson River Valley which included the Catskill, Adirondack and White mountains.   It was from within this group that another painting genre evolved.  It was called luminism, which was an American landscape painting style of the 1850’s – 1870’s which was characterised by effects of light in landscapes. The use of aerial perspective and a hiding of visible brushstrokes were also characters of this style of painting.   These luminist landscapes accentuated an aura of tranquillity and often depicted stretches of calm water above which were soft hazy skies.

It was two years later in 1859 that Bierstadt met up with Frederick West Lander who at the time was working for the US government as a land surveyor.  Lander, who was ten years older than Bierstadt, was a military man, who after having studied in various military academies became a civil engineer and an army officer.  The American government employed him to survey the land out to the west so as to find a suitable route for the Pacific railroad.   This was a hazardous occupation for he and his team of surveyors had not only to contend with the often inhospitable climate but they had to deal with the Native Indians, who fought against the incursion into their homeland.

Bierstadt accompanied Lander on one of these transcontinental surveys which was to forge a passage west and which would become known as Lander Road.  This became a popular route for future wagon trains crossing Wyoming and Oregon.  It was during this journey of discovery that Bierstadt made many sketches of the landscapes he encountered and on his return home he would convert his rough sketches into many majestic landscape paintings.  These were very popular with collectors in the American East who were willing to pay high prices for his works of art as there was a great desire to learn more about their newly-discovered lands to the West. 

My Daily Art Display today is one Bierstadt completed in 1863 shortly before he returned back to the West on another journey of discovery.  The oil on canvas painting is entitled The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak.  It was a very large painting, measuring 187cms x 307cms (approximately 6ft by 10ft).  Bierstadt’s works were often of this size and some of his contemporaries believed this was solely due to his egotistical manner.  It was probably more to do with their jealousy and the fact that his large works dwarfed their smaller offerings.

The setting for this landscape painting is of the Wind River Range of the Rocky Mountains of west Wyoming.   The mountain, seen in the central background of the painting, was given the name Lander’s Peak by Bierstadt in honour of  Lander, who had died on the Civil War battlefield the previous year. This major work of Bierstadt received great acclaim.  This wonderful painting manages to capture the vastness of the American landscape and the nature of the undeveloped lands that he and Lander’s survey party encountered.   Bierstadt in this painting, by the careful use of brushstrokes, manages to convey to us a sense of awe of the untainted landscape as it was at that time.     Like many of his fellow Hudson River Valley artists, Bierstadt believed that through art, moral and spiritual change could be achieved. 

The beauty of this painting is breath-taking with its high snow-covered peaks soaring upwards into the sky.  In the middle-ground we see a waterfall gushing water into the mirror-smooth lake.  I love how the sunlight streams through the clouds to light up this cascading torrent.  It is the effective use of luminism which gives this painting the “wow factor”.   It adds a mood of tranquillity, peace and calmness to the work.  The vegetation around the lake is lush and green and the location was an ideal stop-over place.  In the foreground we see a Shoshone Indian encampment with its warriors and their horses.

The painting was sold to a private collector James McHenry in 1865 for $25,000, which was an enormous sum of money in those days. The artist later bought back the work of art and gave it to his brother Edward.  Bierstadt was a prolific painter completing over five hundred works.  Sadly a large number of them were lost when his Irvington studio was destroyed by fire.  Bierstadt died in New York in 1902 aged 72.