Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

Mountainous Landscape by Moonlight

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Mountainous Landscape by Moonlight
signed with conjoined initials and dated 'ABierstadt/71.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
30 x 50 in. (76.2 x 127 cm.)
Mr. and Mrs. Harry L. Tepper, South Orange, New Jersey.
Gift to the present owner from the above, 1960.
G. Hendricks, "The First Three Western Journeys of Albert Bierstadt," Art Bulletin, vol. XLVI, no. 3, September 1964, p. 361, no. 181.
T.W. Leavitt, Albert Bierstadt: A Retrospective Exhibition, exhibition catalogue, Santa Barbara, California, 1964, n.p., no. 55.
G. Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1974, pp. 166, 222-23, 329, no. CL-54, illustrated.
Mansfield Art Center, The American West, exhibition catalogue, Mansfield, Ohio, 1990, p. 34, illustrated.
Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paisaje Americano, Explorar el Eden, exhibition catalogue, Madrid, Spain, 2001, p. 147, no. 37, illustrated.
Montclair Art Museum, Primal Visions: Albert Bierstadt "Discovers" America, exhibition catalogue, Montclair, New Jersey, 2001, pp. 50, 82, illustrated.
New York, American Federation of the Arts, Artists of the Western Frontier, May 1961-May 1962.
Knoxville, Tennessee, The Dulin Gallery of Art, A Century and a Half of American Painting, April 1-May 13, 1963.
Santa Barbara, California, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, Albert Bierstadt: A Retrospective Exhibition, August 5-September 13, 1964.
Columbia, South Carolina, Columbia Museum of Art, Landscape in the History of Western Art, January 21-February 26, 1967.
Geneseo, New York, State University College Fine Arts Center, Hudson River School, February 27-April 6, 1968.
Washington, D.C., State Department, 1970, on loan.
Washington, D.C., Smithsonian Institution, 19th Century American Landscape Painting, October 15-December 10, 1975.
Washington, D.C., U.S. Capitol House Administration Committee Room, American Landscape Paintings of the 19th Century, January 13-March 31, 1977.
Aspen, Colorado, Aspen Art Museum, Two Artists of the American West, March 1-April 14, 1985.
Mansfield, Ohio, Mansfield Art Center, The American West, March 18-April 15, 1990.
San Marino, California, Huntington Art Collection, June 1992-August 1994, on loan.
Madrid, Spain, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Paisaje Americano, Explorar el Eden, September 27, 2000-January 14, 2001.
Montclair, New Jersey, Montclair Art Museum, and elsewhere, Primal Visions: Albert Bierstadt "Discovers" America, 1859-1893, November 17, 2001-February 3, 2002.

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Lot Essay

Albert Bierstadt's paintings of the untamed American West are some of the most significant historical and artistic accomplishments of the nineteenth century. While other artists had made expeditions throughout the area as early as the 1830s, few could rival Bierstadt in his ability to convey the grandeur of this wondrous region to the American public. Painted in 1871, Mountainous Landscape by Moonlight depicts an expansive landscape populated only by three frontiersmen by a fire in the lower right corner. The firelight is vivid and the landscape dramatic, emphasizing Bierstadt's vision of a pristine West.

The remarkable and raw American landscape captivated Bierstadt, who described it in one of the many letters he sent back east for publication in the art magazine, The Crayon: "If you can form any idea of the scenery of the Rocky Mountains and of our life in this region, from what I have to write, I shall be very glad; there is indeed enough to write about--a writing lover of nature and Art could not wish for a better subject. I am delighted with the scenery...In the valleys, silvery streams abound with mossy rocks and an abundance of that finny tribe that we all delight so much to catch, the trout. We see many spots in the scenery that remind us of our New Hampshire and Catskill hills, but when we look up and measure the mighty perpendicular cliffs that rise hundreds of feet aloft, all capped with snow, we then realize that we are among a different class of mountains; and especially when we see the antelope stop to look at us, and still more the Indian, his pursuer, who often stands dismayed to see a white man sketching alone in the midst of his hunting grounds." (as quoted in G. Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1974, p. 70) In the New Bedford Daily Mercury, Bierstadt praised the Western landscape, writing that "For the most part, the weather has been delightful, and such beautiful cloud formations, such fine effects of light and shade, and play of cloud shadows across the hills, such golden sunsets. I have never before seen. Our own country has the best material for the artist in the world." (as quoted in Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, p. 86)

With dramatic light and remarkable detail, Bierstadt has transcribed the glorious elements that he witnessed and the serenity of an unblemished wilderness in Mountainous Landscape by Moonlight of 1871. The strong horizontals of the river and landscape are balanced by the sturdy verticals of the towering mountains and trees. Although the layers of the composition help organize the painting into horizontal bands, the open view allows an easy movement through the landscape. Bierstadt paints the details of the figures, and the landscape illuminated by the campfire mountain with an eye towards creating an utterly placid, naturalistic scene of western splendor. The light hitting the intricately detailed figures and shore in the immediate foreground carry the viewer's eye to the hazier, cloud enshrouded mountain, suggestive of unending natural beauty, emphasized by the reflection of the landscape in the water. In the present painting, Bierstadt painted the three frontiersmen to contrast with the towering mountains above them and the expansive landscape. Although he often chose to paint landscapes without figures, in this work, Bierstadt uses them to effectively emphasize the magnificence and power of nature while capturing an image of the men who courageously explored the West.

Bierstadt's synthesis of the broadly monumental and the finely detailed, places his work among the most successful expressions of nature. This expression, through Bierstadt's attention to detail and evocation of light, harmoniously brings together the spiritual and natural world. Like no artist before him, Bierstadt established himself as the pre-eminent painter with both the technique and the talent to convey the powerful visual impact of the Western landscape, to capture the mammoth scale of the open spaces, and to begin to interpret this new American landscape in a manner equal to its majesty. In summarizing Bierstadt's achievement, Gordon Hendricks wrote that "his successes envelop us with the beauty of nature, its sunlight, its greenness, its mists, its subtle shades, its marvelous freshness. All of these Bierstadt felt deeply. Often he was able, with the struggle that every artist knows, to put his feelings on canvas. When he succeeded in what he was trying to do--to pass along some of this own passion for the wildness and beauty of the new West--he was as good as any landscapist in the history of American art." (Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1973, p. 10)

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