Albert Bierstadts Among the Sierra NevadaMountains in California is a scenic canvas oilpainting on display at the National Museum ofAmerican Art in Washington, DC. Created in 1868,this enormous painting is approximately six by tenfeet in size (Honour and Fleming, 2000). Thesubject matter of this piece is typical ofBierstadt, who is known for his detailedlandscapes, especially those of the Rockies andSierras of the American West.
Collectively,Alberts works are manipulated and slightlyidealized scenes based on actual places hevisited. Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) was born inGermany and at the age of two, he moved with hisparents to Massachusetts. In his early twenties,he studied art in Dusseldorf, Germany.
He traveledbetween the U.S. and Europe throughout his lifeand painted mostly for private collectors. Between1859 and 1889, he traveled through the West on sixdifferent occasions where he drew inspiration formany of his paintings (Encarta, 2000).
During hisvisits, Albert drew numerous sketches, which laterbecame the basis for his works. Bierstadtsbrother, who was a photographer, accompanied himon several of his travels across the U.S. and uponseeing the landscapes from the photographs; Albertwas driven to paint these spectacular scenes fromnature for people in the East.Bierstadtspaintings combine both European and Americaninfluences. Although the subject matter in 19thcentury Europe consisted of mainly historicalanecdotes with a movement towards Realism,Bierstadt painted conventional American subjectmatter of landscapes and still life with Germanstyle.
Because of Alberts broad background, hisdepiction of mountains often takes on an Alpineflavor (Encarta, 2000). Bierstadt was one of thepremier American landscape painters of the 1800sand was well known in both the U.S. and Europe.Although Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains is areflection of the American West, it was paintedfar from the U.S. This particular painting wascreated in Rome and displayed in Berlin, Londonand Paris (Honour and Fleming, 2000).
It depicts aphotographic-like scene of a lake beneath therocky cliffs of mountains. Breaking through thedark clouds after a summer storm, sunlightreflects off of a glassy lake with mirrored imagesof the mountains above. The trees on the right andthe cliffs on the left create a v in the center ofthe painting, which draws the viewers eye towardsthe lower center.
At this point, a small waterfallcomes down the center of the mountain and emptiesinto the lake. Distant snowcapped peaks arepresent in the center right part of scene, whereclouds consume parts of the mountains. The cliffson the right appear smooth in comparison to therough woods edge and larger mountains on the left.These two elements seem to balance each other, anda diamond of light is created in the center.
Darker clouds cover the top left and right handcorners adding to this effect.The middle groundis somewhat dark and spotlights of sun dramatizethe spectacular scenery. The foreground containingshort grasses and the lake is smooth and as theeye moves upward the scenery gets progressivelyrougher. Bierstadt shows his German background inthe style of this painting. Carefully placedhighlights of sun streaming from the top and darkshadows provide dramatic lighting often present inEuropean painting of the same time period (Honourand Fleming, 2000). With oil painting, many layersof different oil colors are layered on top of eachother and brush strokes are often visible. In thispiece, brush strokes are barely visible and thesurface is smooth in texture suggesting thephotographic realism of a camera.
A looser,perhaps more American style, was used in paintingthe clouds. Swirling clouds at the top of thescene gives the picture a sense of airiness and analmost mystical god-like quality. The rest of thelandscape is meticulously detailed. It appears tobe an idealized picture of nature, butimperfections are shown in the crooked shapes ofthe tree trunks and the fallen tree in the lowerright hand corner.
This painting also has warmnessto it, which is evident in the yellow hues of thesky backdrop and the small waterfowl and deer bythe lakes edge. In its entirety, this painting isa realistic yet semi-idealized view of nature.Theperspective is designed to draw the viewer intothe painting.
Seemingly the viewer is looking froma vantage point that is higher than the foregroundas though one is looking down towards the lake andup into the mountains. This suggests that thelandscape was manipulated to create a balanced andunique view that may not be physically possible.Among the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Californiadepicts natures beauty in a peaceful quietsolitude way as to entice the viewer to experiencethe wilderness first hand.
When this was paintedin the19th century, America began to make smallefforts to preserve and conserve the wilderness.Writers like George Perkins Marsh, who publishedMan and Nature in 1864, warned of the destructionand waste of Americas resources (Encarta, 2000).After growing concern, national forests, parks andwildlife reserves were established primarily byTheodore Roosevelt. The frontier was seen as aplace for continuous generation of democracy,social progress, economic growth, and nationalgrowth. The wilderness was seen as a source ofwealth and strength drawing people to explore andexperience nature.
Through paintings likeBierstadts, the viewer could have this experiencewithout having to travel a great distance.Intended for private display, now Among the SierraNevada Mountains in California is on publicdisplay as it portrays an important part of ourAmerican history. Not only is this paintingpleasing to the eye with its detailed majesticmountains, it gives the viewer an idealized viewof natures grandeur. Bierstadt, Albert. MicrosoftEncarta Online Encyclopedia 2000.http://encarta.msn.com (21 Nov.
2000) Honour andFleming. The Visual Arts: A History.PrenticeHall: New Jersey, 2000.