Wednesday, September 30, 2009
At the Museum: Albert Bierstadt
If you have been watching the Ken Burns series about our National Parks on
PBS, you’ve heard about artists traveling on many of the earliest expeditions to the parts of the American West that are today part of the park system. One of the artists in the LRMA collection, Albert Bierstadt, traveled with Colonel Frederick Lander’s government-sponsored expedition to map an overland route to the Pacific. In fact, Bierstadt’s career arc was enormously influenced by his participation in that expedition.
Born in Prussia, but raised in the United States, Bierstadt knew from an early age he wanted to be an artist. Unfortunately, it is almost universally acknowledged that his early work as a self-taught artist was really quite awful. It wasn’t until he studied art in Europe as a young man that his skill and talent developed sufficiently to match his ambition. He studied in Düsseldorf under Emmanuel Leutze, the American history painter best known for the iconic painting, “George Washington Crossing the Delaware.” He traveled widely and returned to the United States an accomplished and successful landscape painter in the European mode.
Until his Western travels, Bierstadt’s scenes of Europe and America were serene, luminous, and to some extent pastoral. This would change when, in 1858, he joined Lander’s exhibition. Bierstadt and several other members of the expedition did not stay with Lander all the way to California. Instead he opted to stop in Wyoming and spend the summer sketching in that wilderness. Shortly thereafter, Bierstadt launched a career built on large canvases depicting dramatic scenes of the then-exotic American West. From 1863 to 1883, Bierstadt commanded the highest prices of any American painter, living or dead. He would return to the West multiple times throughout his career, always sketching and preparing for yet another grand statement, usually a sweeping sunset in technicolor setting over the Rockies.
However, in between trips to the West, Bierstadt also visited the White Mountains of New Hampshire for sketching trips. It was on one of these trips, probably between 1857 and 1869, that he would have originated the idea for the Museum’s Bierstadt, “Autumn in New Hampshire.” The Museum’s painting harks back to Bierstadt’s early serene European style, rather than the drama and grandeur of his popular paintings of the American West. By the 1860s, New Hampshire was well-settled and thoroughly populated; it was nowhere near as wild and untamed as the Western half of the continent. The misty mountains in the background are barely visible behind the bright oranges and greens of the autumn foliage of New England. For Bierstadt, New Hampshire was something like home, whereas Wyoming was exotic, dangerous, and distant. Wyoming wasn’t even a state until 1890, years after Bierstadt’s visit; New Hampshire, after all, was one of the original thirteen colonies. Hence Bierstadt’s use of his more traditional mode of painting for this New England scene, which he was probably painting alongside his Western works.
“Autumn in New Hampshire” has been part of the Museum’s collection since it was donated in 1926 by Lauren Rogers’ grandfather, Lauren Chase Eastman. Mr. Eastman had purchased the painting in 1911, not too long after Bierstadt’s death. It hangs in the Museum’s American Gallery today.
The Lauren Rogers Museum of Art is open from 10:00 a.m. until 4:45 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1:00 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. Sunday. For more information about exhibitions, tours, and programming, call 601-649-6374 or visit www.LRMA.org.
Jill R. Chancey, PhD, is curator of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.