Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Property from a Private Collection, Colorado
Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

Rocky Mountain Waterfall

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)
Rocky Mountain Waterfall
signed with conjoined initials and dated 'ABierstadt/98.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
60 x 38 in. (152.4 x 96.5 cm.)
Private collection.
Private collection, New York.
M. Knoedler & Co., New York, Inc.
Anschutz Collection, Denver, Colorado, circa 1973.
Acquired by the present owner from the above.
G. Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt, 1830-1902, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1972, p. 22, no. 23, frontispiece illustration.
United Bank of Denver, Western Legacy: Exhibition of Western Art, exhibition catalogue, Boulder, Colorado, 1972, p. 4, illustrated.
G. Schriever, American Masters in the West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection, Boise, Idaho, exhibition catalogue, 1974, p. 11, illustrated.
"Presidential Portraits on Freedom Train," The Railroad Yardmaster, vol. 57, 1975, p. 28.
"Wilderness and American Art," Sierra Club Bulletin, June-July 1975, p. 32.
Münchner Stadtmuseum, Painters of the American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection, exhibition catalogue, Munich, Germany, 1982, pp. 18, 111, 134, fig. 18, illustrated.
E. Cunningham, G. Schriever, Masterpieces of the American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection, exhibition catalogue, Denver, Colorado, 1983, pp. 19-20, 134, 166, no. 20, illustrated.
Tucson Museum of Art, "Masterpieces of the American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection, February 16-April 21, 1985," Focus on TMA, January-March 1985, p. 4.
A. Poore, "Exhibit Rounds Up Romance, Legend of Old West," The Salt Lake Tribune, October 21, 1990, p. E1.
A. Axelrod, Art of the Golden West, New York, 1990, p. 90.
A.R. Hayakawa, "Artquake Gathers Celebration of the West," The Oregonian, September 9, 2009, p. F12.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Albert Bierstadt, 1830-1902, September 15-October 10, 1972, no. 23.
Denver, Colorado, United Bank of Denver, Western Legacy: Exhibition of Western Art, January 12-February 3, 1973.
Washington, D.C., National Archives of the United States, Indians and the American West: Paintings from the Collections of the Santa Fe Industries, Inc., October 26, 1973-January 21, 1974.
Boise, Idaho, Boise Gallery of Art, American Masters in the West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection, April 26-June 16, 1974, no. 11.
The American Freedom Train, The American Freedom Train: Bicentennial Exhibition, April 1, 1975-December 31, 1976.
Wichita Falls, Texas, The Wichita Falls Museum and Art Center, The Philip Anschutz Collection of Western Art, September 7, 1977-February 19, 1978, no. 3.
Helsinki, Finland, Helsingin Taidetalo, Great American Masters of the West, August 27-October 5, 1980.
Munich, Germany, Münchner Stadtmuseum, and elsewhere, Painters of the American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection, January 26-February 28, 1982, no. 18.
Portland, Oregon, Portland Art Museum, and elsewhere, Masterpieces of the American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection, September 9-November 6, 1983, no. 20.

Lot Essay

Albert Bierstadt's majestic depictions of the American West comprise the artist's most highly regarded works and are among the greatest achievements in nineteenth-century American art. From 1859 through 1889, Bierstadt made multiple journeys from the East Coast to the far reaches of the Western frontier in search of a pure landscape untouched by human presence. Of all the diverse topography that he encountered and chose to depict, the Rocky Mountains ranked among his favorite. Indeed, these imposing peaks amazed him from his first venture as he wrote in the Crayon, "The mountains are very fine; as seen from the plains, they resemble very much the Bernese Alps, one of the finest ranges of mountains in Europe, if not in the world. They are of granite formation, the same as the Swiss mountains and their jagged summits, covered with snow and mingling with the clouds, present a scene which every lover of landscape would gaze upon with unqualified delight." (as quoted in G. Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1974, p. 70) Although Bierstadt spent his mature years traveling abroad, memories of the magnificent American mountain range continued to inspire him and he called upon sketches and photographs from his early trips to the West as the basis for dramatic large-scale paintings. Painted in 1898, Rocky Mountain Waterfall is a superb example of these grandiose compositions which serve as representations of the artist's nostalgia for the American West he adored.

Bierstadt was among the first of a group artists who journeyed to the Rocky Mountains to paint and sketch the wondrous natural and geological environment. The mountains were awe-inspiring to these pioneers who explored the wild territory summoning profound conflicting emotions of wonder and intimidation at their majestic stature. In the early twentieth century, art historian Sadakichi Hartmann defined this group of artists as "The Rocky Mountain School." "In [Hartmann's] History of American Art (1901) he linked the western-school painters with the Hudson River School, which had 'dealt wholly with externals' of nature, the subject alone, rather than 'nature itself, the poetry and mystery of its simpler moods.'" (P. Trenton, P.H. Hassrick, The Rocky Mountains: A Vision for Artists in the Nineteenth Century, Norman, Oklahoma, 1983, p. xv) Having been the first to travel out West, Bierstadt is considered the leader of the group. Although sketching in small format he chose canvases of great scale in order to appropriately summon the wonder of the West. In author Bayard Taylor's 1867 book, Colorado: A Summer Trip, he commented, "Ever since my arrival I have been studying the mountains. Their beauty and grandeur grow upon me with every hour of my stay. None of the illustrations accompanying the reports of exploration, and other Government documents, give any distinct idea of their variety and harmony of forms...You cannot cram this scenery into the compass of a block-book; it requires a large canvas, and the boldest and broadest handling. The eye is continually cheated, the actual being so much more than the apparent dimensions of all objects. Though so familiar with the effect of extraordinarily pure, thin air, and great clearness of outline, I am still frequently at fault. What one sees is small, is always small in the drawing. Even photographs here have the same dwarfed, diminished expression. I can now see how naturally Bierstadt was led to a large canvas." (as quoted in The Rocky Mountains: A Vision for Artists in the Nineteenth Century, p. 116)

Bierstadt made his first trip to the West in 1859, when he joined Colonel Frederick W. Lander's regiment on the authority of John B. Floyd, secretary of war, as they ventured from their post in St. Louis, Missouri to the Western coast. Bierstadt traveled with the group as far as the South Pass on the Continental Divide and returned back with fellow artist, Francis Shield Frost. During this expedition, Bierstadt diligently sketched, photographed and recorded the scenery--focusing both on the landscape and the settlements they encountered. The fully realized oils, which he finished once back in his studio, were lauded as they illustrated the breadth of western expanse. At the Annual Exhibition in 1860, Bierstadt selected one of these monumental oils, Base of Rocky Mountains, Laramie Peak (unlocated), and his submission was hailed "the piéce de resistance" of the landscapes on view. (as quoted in New York Tribune, 27 March 1860, n.p., N.K. Anderson, L. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1990, p. 146)

The great praise for his Rocky Mountain pictures resulted in commercial success for Bierstadt and he made a return trip in 1863 to travel further into the West, this time broadening his scope to California. The diversity of the natural elements inspired many successful large scale compositions. Indeed, upon his return in 1864, Bierstadt placed his monumental Rocky Mountains (1863, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) with the gallery Seitz and Noelle in New York, where one reviewer proclaimed: "Mr. Bierstadt's picture deserves to take rank among the highest existing productions of American landscape art." (March 1864 newspaper clipping, collection of Mrs. Orville DeForest Edwards, Dobbs Ferry, New York, as quoted in G. Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1974, p. 141)

In Rocky Mountain Waterfall, Bierstadt captures the craggy gorge and cascading falls in stunning detail, presenting the astonishing power of the Western mountain range. With careful detail he adeptly renders the soggy moss growing on the rocks and surrounding lush greenery. A subtle mist rises off of the falls, enriching the scene with an atmospheric effect that one could only draw from personal observation. Bierstadt employs evergreen trees to establish depth and frame the scene. A fallen tree, uprooted, in the left foreground extends outside of the composition's edge suggesting a bridge to another territory beyond the painting's scope. As with many of Bierstadt's large scale compositions, Rocky Mountain Waterfall does not relate to a specific location; rather, it draws from scenes which he had visited in his early trips out West. "He did not rearrange the scenery or introduce additional elements for pictorial effect. The theatrical light, turbulent skies and monumental granite cliffs were meant to impress the viewer with the grandeur of the western wilderness." (E. Cunningham, G. Schriever, Masterpieces of the American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection, exhibition catalogue, Denver, Colorado, 1983, n.p.)

A romantic vision of the vigorous, untamed landscape, the present work pays homage to Bierstadt's cherished memories of his journeys in the western wilderness. As Gordon Hendricks writes, "In 1898 the artist was no longer given to scrambling among precipitous rocks in the pursuit of new vistas. Comfortable in the wealth of his new wife--the stepmother of Isabella Stewart Gardner and a millionairess--he spent sedate hours in his studio or, when he travelled, stayed at quiet resort hotels, such as those in Newport, Long Branch, New Jersey, or Switzerland. He was nostalgic for the 'wonderful old mountains' of his younger, Western days, and in this painting gives us a glimpse of the Lander's Peak profile of his great Rocky Mountains of 1863. Rocky Mountain Waterfall was evidently constructed from studies of earlier Western trips to the Sierras, Rockies and, perhaps, the Cascades." (Albert Bierstadt, 1830-1902, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1972, p. 22)

In Rocky Mountain Waterfall Bierstadt masterfully captures the splendor of the vigorous landscape while imbuing the canvas with a celestial light conveying the sublimity of the natural world. The rising mist from the stream adds an element of spirituality and a touch of sentimentality as the artist recalls with his brush the grandeur of the West. "Bierstadt's paintings characteristically transport their viewers vicariously to far-away locations where the geography is magnificent, the air thunderously tempestuous or perpetually pristine, or both, and the flora and fauna fecund...Certain of those places are, or are for the most part, topographically specific...Others, including some of the artist's favored compositions...are his own studio creations. At his best, Bierstadt was a skillful, compelling magician with palette and paintbrush." (G.L. Carr, "Albert Bierstadt: A Larger Perspective," Bierstadt's West, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1997, n.p.) Transformed by memory and imagination, Rocky Mountain Waterfall reflects Bierstadt's admiration for the heroic peaks of the West and longing for his days on the frontier.

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