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B&C Member Spotlight - Albert Bierstadt

As one of the original members of the Boone and Crockett Club, Albert Bierstadt documented the disappearing landscape of the American West—people and wildlife included. For that reason, he was recruited to help save it. 

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In 1864, the United States had already endured three gruesome years of the Civil War. In July, Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early sat on his horse atop a small mound of earth where, six miles away, was Washington D.C. Early’s lackluster attempts to attack Fort Stevens in northwest D.C. ultimately failed, and his men retreated toward Appomattox, Virginia, where a year later Lee would surrender. 

Even in that time of war and chaos and death, art survived. Speaking before Congress in the same year Early set his sights on the capitol, Frederick Law Olmstead, the nation’s leading landscape architect, said of Albert Bierstadt’s paintings: “It was during one of the darkest hours [of the Civil War] when the paintings of Bierstadt…had given to the people of the Atlantic some idea of the sublimity of the Yosemite.” In other words, his paintings served as a momentary distraction for a nation at war. 

Those landscapes were inspired by Bierstadt’s travels and experiences in the American West, which began in 1859. He fell in love with the animals, people, peaks, and waterfalls. As a member of the Boone and Crockett Club, he would use his talents to try and save those places and animals that inspired him. 

Early Travels West 

Bierstadt was only two years old when his family immigrated from Germany to the United States. Nineteen years later, he would return to Germany where he received less than a year of formal training at the Dusseldorf School of Painting. Instead of more formal training, he chose to travel Europe and sketch the landscapes there. After being in Europe nearly five years, his quest for travel and love of art would stay with him upon his return to the U.S. He became a second-generation painter of the Hudson River school, and he took his talents from the Hudson River west to the Rockies. 

His first taste of the western U.S. came in 1859 when he joined a railroad survey that traveled through the Great Plains to the Rockies in Wyoming. After six months, he brought sketches back to a studio in New York City where he would paint massive (and sometimes embellished) paintings of the frontier. This gave many city-dwelling Easterners their first glimpse of what existed far away from the city. Over time, his popularity and his payouts began to grow. 
 

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Bierstadt’s painting, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, was met with mixed reviews by art critics when it was unveiled in 1863.

In one of his earliest paintings, The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, he painted a camp of Shoshone Native Americans in the foreground amongst a backdrop of a cascading waterfall and the jagged peaks of the Wyoming wilderness. This was Bierstadt’s attempt at a western narrative, a chance to tell the story of the West as he saw it. “But his painting was criticized, saying that he shouldn’t be incorporating Indian people in his landscapes,” explained the late Peter Hassrick in a documentary about Bierstadt. Based on what he would paint later in his life, it didn’t seem the critics held too much sway with the artist. 

In 1863, Bierstadt and writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow set off again for artistic adventures. This time they met up with other bohemians in San Francisco where they explored and camped their way through the Yosemite Valley, Rocky Mountains and the Columbia River area. When he returned to New York City, Bierdtadt’s fame had exploded, and he was commissioned to paint landscapes for wealthy railroad industrialists. 

Of the numerous paintings that followed his 1863 trip, one in particular shook the art world. Looking Down the Yosemite Valley, California was a physically large painting with a healthy helping of artistic interpretation thrown in. Measuring roughly five feet by eight feet, the painting is a depiction of heaven on earth with an explosion of unearthly light hidden behind Yosemite’s towering granite cliffs. That same year, he gave the country its first glimpse of Mt. Hood in Oregon. It was simply titled, Mount Hood, Oregon. He unveiled these paintings at the end of the Civil War at a time when, as Olmstead put it, the U.S. needed a reminder of the sublime in their life. 

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Completed at the end of the Civil War, this work presents a calm and awe-inspiring view of the American West. The spectacular, natural panorama suggested the possibility of a new beginning for those living in war-ravaged states back east. The artist left the painting vacant of almost all animal or human life, suggesting that this pristine Eden—untouched by the bloodshed and suffering of Civil War—lay waiting to be “discovered.”—Joanna Wilson, UAB-BMA Curatorial Fellow 2013-2014  

Club Influencer 

When Bierstadt first experienced the West, he likely saw waves of bison stretching to the horizon. In the decades following, there is little doubt that he watched as those waves nearly vanished altogether. In 1887, Theodore Roosevelt and George Bird Grinnell began enlisting the influencers of the day to help turn the tide and restore those bison populations. In 1888, Roosevelt himself extended the invitation to Bierstadt to become a member, but there was a bit of a problem. Bierstadt was more of an artist than a hunter. 

In a paper published in the New England Quarterly, two writers researched a moose hunt in which Bierstadt participated. Roosevelt wanted to use the hunt as credentials for Bierstadt’s membership into the Club. Apparently, Roosevelt asked Bierstadt to recount the hunt. The only problem was that Bierstadt’s guide shot the bull instead. “Did I feel like taking his life? No. This was a case of survival of the fittest and my love for seeing him enjoy his breakfast, unconscious of the presence of the enemy, made me respect him,” wrote Bierstadt. He then handed the gun to his guide who shot it. Upon receiving the manuscript, Roosevelt took more than a few editorial liberties and muddied the literary waters to infer that Bierstadt shot the moose. This is certainly an aside regarding Bierstadt’s contributions to conservation, but it does show that Roosevelt was willing to go to great lengths to get this influencer on board with the Club. 

As a member of the Club, Bierstadt was called to use his talent for conservation. “When he joined the Boone and Crockett Club this was his way of making a monumental statement,” said Hassrick. “He starts painting paintings that incorporate wildlife and the buffalo is the symbol of the West.” The same year he became a member, Bierstadt unveiled one of his most influential paintings. 

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Bierstadt’s Last of the Buffalo is his homage to the West—its landscape, wildlife, and people. This painting captured the attention of Easterners and helped members of the Boone and Crockett Club establish laws to turn back the destruction caused by market hunting.​​​​​​​

That painting is called Last of the Buffalo, and it is both literally and figuratively massive. At six feet tall and 10 feet wide, the painting made waves in the nineteenth-century art world. A collector bought it for $50,000, which was the highest price paid for an American artist’s work in the 1800s. The press went wild about the purchase price, and the notoriety helped in other ways. Most notably, Bierstadt’s painting called attention to the downward spiral of bison populations across the country. “His images showing the extinction of the bison—the near extinction of the bison—helped prompt the United States government to act and to actually take deliberate steps to prevent the extinction of an entire species,” said museum curator Karen McWhorter in the documentary. 

Last of the Buffalo was Birestadt at his finest, but his fame and notoriety didn’t last long. His wife died of tuberculosis in 1893, and the fervor surrounding landscape paintings gave way to American Impressionism and photography. In 1895 he declared bankruptcy and died in 1902. 

Bierstadt’s popularity reached a peak at a time when the Boone and Crockett Club and the West needed a visual narrative to speak to the people. The Club had Roosevelt’s political clout and George Bird Grinnel’s savvy pen with Forest and Stream. For those who would never see the western landscapes with their own eyes, Bierstadt’s brush took  them there. 

There are some art historians  who contend that Bierstadt’s paintings were a marketing tool, which sent waves of settlers out of the city and onto the frontier. While he may have certainly influenced some to travel west to visit or to stay, his paintings served a higher purpose. He helped Americans visualize landscapes, people, and wildlife in a far away land. Bierstadt’s paintings still are a testament to a land, a time, and a people of the past—some of which has been lost. And a fair amount that has been saved. 
 

 

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"The wildlife and its habitat cannot speak. So we must and we will."

-Theodore Roosevelt