The beauty of the American West was the greatest source of Bierstadt's artistic inspirations and the setting in which he seems most at ease. The paintings of Bierstadt and a handful of other artists served as one of the most effective means of communicating the wonder and bounty of the West to Easterners who were contemplating the move westward, tapping into their curiosity about these remote territories.
As these expansionists and explorers fulfilled their dreams supported by the ideology of the Manifest Destiny, the belief that Americans were divinely ordained masters of the continent, Bierstadt aided them by charting the territory they were soon to discover by way of his technical mastery and draftsmanship. Bierstadt wrote in his own pamphlet in discussing the barren plain in the foreground of The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, his hope that, "a city, populated by our descendants, may rise, and in its art-galleries this picture may eventually find a resting-place." (quoted in L.S. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise, 1990, p. 25)
Bierstadt first traveled through the American West 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. During this journey, Bierstadt wrote to the New York periodical The Crayon, "I am delighted with the scenery. The mountains are very fine ... 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." (July 10, 1859, quoted in G. Hendricks, "The First Three Western Journeys of Albert Bierstadt," The Art Bulletin, September 1964, p.337) He spent the summer of 1859 sketching the mountains, lakes, valleys and rivers. However, Bierstadt painted the resulting works to evoke the grandeur and heroic landscape of the West rather than exacting topographical studies.
Bierstadt was preceded in portraying the American West by a small group of artists, most notably Alfred Jacob Miller and George Catlin. He stood out from the members of this group primarily because of his extraordinary artistic skill. This skill allowed Bierstadt to give the viewer a more romantic vision when compared with the narrative quality of Miller and Catlin, who presented similar vistas, but rendered them in a much more naive manner. Bierstadt captured the majesty of the terrain and the enormity of nature more effectively than any of his nineteenth century rivals.
Bierstadt's European training provided him with the skill in technique, but it was the grandeur of the West that provided the impetus for the artist to create the monumental vistas, which became his trademark and contribution to American art.