Albert Bierstadt Captures Vanishing Century  by Rosemary McKittrick

Photo courtesy of PBA Galleries.

Albert Bierstadt captured the glory and the heartache of the Western wilderness in his 19th century paintings.  For people who would never get the chance to travel west, the artist offered a firsthand glimpse of an unspoiled landscape through his timeless images. 

The prairie was littered with bleached bison bones.  Tons of skeletal remains were shipped back to eastern processing plants via the railroad and transformed into carbon and fertilizers.  It was a lucrative business for the railroad industry.

His landscapes of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, Mt. Shasta, The Grand Tetons, and Mt. Hood offer an up-close, seductive view of a way of life that was about to change forever. 

Albert surprised and startled people with his massive canvases.  That’s what it took for him to communicate the panoramic wilderness he witnessed.  His attention to detail and atmospheric lighting mesmerized collectors.  He was successful early on in his career.

In 1859, Albert got a chance to travel west with an expedition led by Col. Frederick W. Lander.  The trip was the beginning of his lifelong passion to capture the West with his paintbrush.

When Albert returned from the expedition he rented a studio in the New York 10th Street Studio Building.  With high ceilings and luxurious rooms, the space was perfect for painting and receiving the public. 

Albert used sketches and stereographs he made during his travels to recreate massive landscapes in his studio.  He visited the West again in 1863 and saw Yosemite Valley for the first time. During a subsequent trip from 1871 to 1873, Bierstadt settled in San Francisco for a long stay.

One of the most important oils Albert did late in his career was called “The Last of the Buffalo.” There were actually several versions of the painting done.  The one I’m speaking about here was created in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

By the end of the century professional buffalo hunters had sealed the fate of the Plains Indians by killing off all but a few hundred remaining buffalo.  Only two decades before the bison numbered 13 million. 

The prairie was littered with bleaching bones.  Tons of skeletal remains were shipped back to eastern processing plants via the railroad and transformed into carbon and fertilizers.  It was a lucrative business for the railroad industry.   

By the end of the century the buffalo were all but homeless in America.

"The continual slaughter of native species must be halted before all is lost,” Albert said.

The killing didn’t stop and the destruction of the buffalo was mind-boggling to the artist.  His painting “The Buffalo Hunter” reflects back to a time when the bison were still plentiful. 

Albert paints an era before guns when the buffalo and the Indians roamed the plains freely and were equally matched in battle.  The location of the scene in his oil painting is believed to be the foot of the Wind River Mountains in Sweetwater County, Wyo.

On April 21, PBA Galleries, San Francisco, featured a photogravure (print) signed in pencil by Bierstadt of “The Last of the Buffalo” in its Fine Americana with Travel & Exploration sale.  The 16 inch by 27 ½ inch piece sold for $16,800.

Western Memorabilia

Program; details the industry; society and scenery of Cripple Creek, Colorado, and the surrounding area plus its leading citizens; July, 1901; 9 inches by 12 ¼ inches;  $660. 

Chromolithograph (print); Grand Canyon; by Henry H. Raymond; circa 1930; 19 ¼ inches by 29 inches;  $1,200.

Book; An Account of the Kingdom of Nepaul (sp); by Col. William J. Kirkpatrick; first edition; London, 1811;  $1,680.

Book; Historical Sketch of Moscow: Illustrated by Twelve Views of Different Parts of That Imperial City, The Kremlin; first edition; London, 1813;  $6,000.        

Rosemary McKittrick is a storyteller.  For 26 years she has brought the world of collecting to life in her column.  Her website is a mother lode of information about art, antiques and collectibles.  Rosemary received her education in the trenches working as a professional appraiser.

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