Albert Bierstadt's distinguished reputation as one of the finest artists of the nineteenth century rests on the radiant canvases that describe the impressive geography of the American continent. It was in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where the artist was raised, that Bierstadt began to cultivate his artistic career by developing a keen sense of observation of the nautical subjects that surrounded him. This was largely a result of "the emphasis on truthful detail in painting, demanded by New Bedford patrons in the pictorially accurate rigging of vessels, and the search for devices of scale and proportions required in visually pitting man against ocean or whale, [which] were certainly problems similar to those confronting an artist who later turned his interest to the presentation of the expanse and vastness of western landscape." (R.S. Trump, Life and Works of Albert Bierstadt, unpublished dissertation, University of Ohio, 1964, p. 22)
Like many American artists in the mid-nineteenth century, Bierstadt went to Dusseldorf to refine his approach. Following months of study with Emmanuel Leutze, Bierstadt set out on his own to paint the European landscape and further evolve as an artist. Not long after returning to the United States, Bierstadt opened his studio to the public and, as Gordon Hendricks writes, “his work seemed to take New Bedford by surprise. They had had no idea how good he was.” (Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1973, p. 49) Achieving success in short order, Bierstadt quickly moved to New York and established his home and studio in the famous West Tenth Street Studio Building.
Painted in 1861, as tensions in America ran deep and the country was plunging towards the start of the Civil War, the present painting is a luminous work that manifests the profound veneration and wonder that Bierstadt maintained for nature. Perhaps seeking to distract his audience from war-time challenges and provide an escape from the harsh realities they faced, Salem, Massachusetts transcribes the glorious elements that the artist witnessed in the serene and unblemished world around him. In summarizing Bierstadt’s achievement, Gordon Hendricks wrote that “his successes envelop us with the beauty of nature, its sunlight, its greenness, its mist, 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…he was as good as any landscapist in the history of American art.” (Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, p. 10)