Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

Rocky Mountain Goats

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Rocky Mountain Goats
signed 'ABierstadt.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
50¼ x 43¼ in. (127.8 x 109.9 cm.)
Painted circa 1885.
Mrs. Louise Floyd-Jones Thorn.
Mrs. DeLancey Thorn Grant.
By gift to the present owner from the above, 1964.

Lot Essay

In 1876 Albert Bierstadt, renowned for his awe-inspiring depictions of the American West, accompanied the hunter Wyndham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, the fourth Earl of Dunraven, on a moose-hunting trip in Colorado. Some of the sketches that Bierstadt produced on this trip were later used as illustrations by Dunraven's brother-in-law for his 1879 travelogue Wanderings in the Western Lands. Bierstadt transposed several illustrations for publication in New York's Art Union of April 1884. The present painting, Rocky Mountain Goats, is perhaps related to one of the pictures published at that time. The work's magnificent representation of local wildlife, amid large scale scenery and dramatic light, embodies Bierstadt's exceptional ability to capture the mystique of the American West in his paintings and bring it to the public.

Bierstadt traveled West and saw the Rocky Mountains for the first time in 1859, when he accompanied Colonel Frederick Lander's United States Government expedition to map an overland route from Fort Laramie, Wyoming, to the Pacific Ocean. From the start he sketched the awe-inspiring mountains, lakes, valleys and rivers, and the Indians and animals that lived among them. Bierstadt began exhibiting paintings with Rocky Mountain subjects in January 1860, and his pictures were met with immediate enthusiasm. After viewing one of these paintings, a writer for the Crayon commented: "The scenery of this section of our territory has for a long time been a curiosity to lovers of landscape, who have been excited and yet not satisfied by the vague and contradictory reports of explorers. Through the better expression of the brush we can now form some idea of it, Mr. Bierstadt's pencil being too true and too powerful to be questioned." (as quoted in N.K. Anderson and L.S. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise, New York, 1991, pp. 73-74)

Bierstadt revisited the Rocky Mountains throughout his career and these works continued to achieve critical acclaim. On August 31, 1877, nearly two decades after the initial reviews on the subject, a critic for The Rocky Mountain News extolled both the beauty of the local terrain and Bierstadt's talent in capturing its natural splendor in his paintings: "He could not have found a more lovely spot than this Gem of the Rocky Mountains as the scene of the highest triumphs of his art. The massive grandeur and everlasting strength of the granite walls which environ this beautiful retreat, and the infinite variety and loveliness of landscape displayed through the park, have made so powerful an impression on the artist's mind that the subject has thoroughly absorbed his thought; the bold and rugged, as well as the soft and beautiful features of this enchanting region, as they appear on the glowing canvas, show at once the true artistic interpretation and the unerring touch of the master hand." (as quoted in G. Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1974, p. 254)

Filled with resplendent light and majestic scenery, Rocky Mountain Goats is a testament to Bierstadt's understanding of the powerful imagery and wildlife associated with the American wilderness. In the present work Bierstadt dramatically represents a goat with four kids at rest in the foreground, as other animals quietly graze in the distance. The goat strikes a regal pose standing atop a rock, as if the animal rules the surrounding landscape. The goat's elevated stature and stately stance are further underscored by the low vantage point, which also allows the viewer to take in the entire panoramic scene. The rocky foreground gives way to a steep drop between the cliffs, with colossal peaks soaring into the sky, emphasizing the dramatic terrain. The radiant yellow glow of the sun rakes across the goats' white fur and along the entire landscape. This warm glow envelops and unites the entire composition, and emphasizes Bierstadt's well known love of the sublime in nature.

Paintings such as Rocky Mountain Goats effectively capture the wilderness of the American West. Intensely curious about the far reaches of their own continent, Americans looked to Bierstadt to convey the thrill and drama inherent in these remote national territories. Bierstadt, in Rocky Mountain Goats, celebrates the dramatic beauty of the Rocky Mountain's unique fauna and geological wonders through his keen sense of color, light and dramatic composition. Images such as Rocky Mountain Goats transcend formal artistic expressions and became mythic beacons of the West for which Bierstadt is most renowned.

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