Albert Bierstadt’s majestic depictions of the American West are his most highly regarded works and rank among the most triumphant accomplishments in nineteenth-century American art. The artist made his first trip out 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 diligently sketched, photographed and recorded the scenery. The fully-realized oils he finished once back in his studio were received with much praise, as they illustrated the breadth of the wilderness of the Western United States, which was uncharted territory for most New Englanders. At the Annual Exhibition in 1860, Bierstadt showed one of these monumental oils, Base of Rocky Mountains, Laramie Peak (Unlocated), and his submission was hailed "the pièce de resistance" of the landscapes on view. (New York Tribune, March 27, 1860, n.p.) Following his original 1859 trip and through 1873, 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. Among the diverse topography that inspired him during his travels was the dramatic scenery around Lake Tahoe. In Twilight, Lake Tahoe, Bierstadt splendidly portrays the surrounding mountain peaks, the towering pine trees and the tranquil waters of Lake Tahoe, all while imbuing the canvas with a vivid light.
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." (as quoted in G. Hendricks, Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West, New York, 1974, p. 70) In the New Bedford Daily Mercury, Bierstadt further praised the Western landscape, writing, "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)
The great praise for Bierstadt’s Rocky Mountain pictures resulted in commercial success for the artist, and he made a return trip in 1863 to further explore the West and make an initial visit to California. This trip also marked the first time that Bierstadt marveled at Lake Tahoe and the surrounding landscape. While this stay was brief, the area had a profound impact on Bierstadt and his traveling companion, Fitz Ludlow. Ludlow noted, “Just across the [California] boundary, we sat down on the brink of glorious Lake Tahoe…a crystal sheet of water fresh-distilled from the snow peaks…Geography has no superior to this glorious sea.” (“Among the Mormons,” Atlantic Monthly, April 1864, pp. 494-95)
In July of 1871, Bierstadt returned to California and Lake Tahoe, this time with his wife, Rosalie, aboard the recently completed transcontinental railroad. Alfred C. Harrison, Jr. writes, “After the Civil War, Lake Tahoe increasingly became a magnet for summer tourists, and hotels sprang up on both sides of the lake…When Mark Twain visited the north shore of Lake Tahoe in 1861, he encountered a landscape nearly deserted of people. That would undergo a dramatic change at the end of the decade after the completion of the Central Pacific Railroad in 1869.” (“Lake Tahoe’s Golden Age: Paintings of the Tahoe Region, 1860-1920,” in Tahoe: A Visual History, New York, 2015, p. 200) The duration of the trip to Tahoe, and facility of travel, was a far cry from the lengthy wagon journeys the artist had embarked upon for his initial trip. As a result of the new railroad connections, California itself had already undergone a significant transformation, and San Francisco had rapidly become the most cosmopolitan city on the West Coast. Harrison continues, “In late July 1871, Bierstadt visited Lake Tahoe in the company of railroad baron Collis P. Huntington. This trip resulted in an important commission for Bierstadt to paint a view of Donner Lake, a project that the artist undertook the following year…The purpose of this major work was to pay homage to the great engineering feat accomplished by the construction of the trans-Sierra portion of the railroad.” (“Lake Tahoe’s Golden Age: Painting of the Tahoe Region,” p. 207) In the two years that followed, Bierstadt traveled extensively throughout California--his route dependent upon seasonal conditions--sketching and painting the dramatic peaks of the Sierra Nevadas, the unique vistas of the Pacific coast and the vast expanse of Yosemite Valley. In May 1872 Bierstadt found himself back in the area surrounding Lake Tahoe.
In Twilight, Lake Tahoe, Bierstadt has brilliantly captured the drama of the landscape with a masterful use of luminist light, beautifully outlining the majestic mountains and reflecting off the tranquil waters. The fiery red, orange, yellow and pink clouds set amidst the blue-green turquoise sky give a prominence and monumentality to the work. Although Bierstadt often chose to paint landscapes without animals or figures, in the present work, he uses two birds, diminutive in scale, to effectively emphasize the magnificence and power of nature. The fallen pine tree in the foreground draws the viewer into the scene, as the massive trees at left and right frame the composition. Through this glorious investigation of light and landscape, Twilight, Lake Tahoe embodies Bierstadt’s reverence for the grandiosity and awe-inspiring beauty of nature in the American West.