Analysis of Albert Bierdstats Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California

Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California is a scenic canvas oil painting on display at the National Museum of American Art in Washington, DC. Created in 1868, this enormous painting is approximately six by ten feet in size (Honour and Fleming, 2000). The subject matter of this piece is typical of Bierstadt, who is known for his detailed landscapes, especially those of the Rockies and Sierras of the American West. Collectively, Albert’s works are manipulated and slightly idealized scenes based on actual places he visited.
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) was born in Germany and at the age of two, he moved with his parents to Massachusetts. In his early twenties, he studied art in Dusseldorf, Germany. He traveled between the U.S. and Europe throughout his life and painted mostly for private collectors. Between 1859 and 1889, he traveled through the West on six different occasions where he drew inspiration for many of his paintings (Encarta, 2000). During his visits, Albert drew numerous sketches, which later became the basis for his works. Bierstadt’s brother, who was a photographer, accompanied him on several of his travels across the U.S. and upon seeing the landscapes from the photographs; Albert was driven to paint these spectacular scenes from nature for people in the East. Bierstadt’s paintings combine both European and American influences. Although the subject matter in 19th century Europe consisted of mainly historical anecdotes with a movement towards Realism, Bierstadt painted conventional American subject matter of landscapes and still life with German style. Because of Albert’s broad background, his depiction of mountains often takes on an Alpine flavor (Encarta, 2000). Bierstadt was one of the premier American landscape painters of the 1800’s and was well known in both the U.S. and Europe.
Although Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains is a reflection of the American West, it was painted far from the U.S. This particular painting was created in Rome and displayed in Berlin, London and Paris (Honour and Fleming, 2000). It depicts a photographic-like scene of a lake beneath the rocky cliffs of mountains. Breaking through the dark clouds after a summer storm, sunlight reflects off of a glassy lake with mirrored images of the mountains above. The trees on the right and the cliffs on the left create a “v” in the center of the painting, which draws the viewer’s eye towards the lower center. At this point, a small waterfall comes down the center of the mountain and empties into the lake. Distant snowcapped peaks are present in the center right part of scene, where clouds consume parts of the mountains. The cliffs on the right appear smooth in comparison to the rough woods edge and larger mountains on the left. These two elements seem to balance each other, and a diamond of light is created in the center. Darker clouds cover the top left and right hand corners adding to this effect. The middle ground is somewhat dark and spotlights of sun dramatize the spectacular scenery. The foreground containing short grasses and the lake is smooth and as the eye moves upward the scenery gets progressively rougher.
Bierstadt shows his German background in the style of this painting. Carefully placed highlights of sun streaming from the top and dark shadows provide dramatic lighting often present in European painting of the same time period (Honour and Fleming, 2000). With oil painting, many layers of different oil colors are layered on top of each other and brush strokes are often visible. In this piece, brush strokes are barely visible and the surface is smooth in texture suggesting the photographic realism of a camera. A looser, perhaps more American style, was used in painting the clouds. Swirling clouds at the top of the scene gives the picture a sense of airiness and an almost mystical god-like quality. The rest of the landscape is meticulously detailed. It appears to be an idealized picture of nature, but imperfections are shown in the crooked shapes of the tree trunks and the fallen tree in the lower right hand corner. This painting also has warmness to it, which is evident in the yellow hues of the sky backdrop and the small waterfowl and deer by the lake’s edge.