Bierstadt, Luminism, and Landscape Photography

In the mid nineteenth century, 'luminism' was a new artistic style that emerged among a group of American landscape painters, specifically those associated with a movement in New York called the Hudson River School.

The Hudson River School was not an actual 'school', but rather a term used to describe an informal group of like-minded painters who lived and practiced their style along the Hudson River Valley and surrounding areas with highly detailed paintings, often characterized with romantic, glowing light.

It is also interesting to note that the painters did not refer to their style as luminism, which is a term that was coined much later by 20th century art historians.

'Among The Sierra Nevada Mountains, California', Albert Bierstadt, 1868.

Luminist paintings can be described by the realistic depiction of light, shadow, and atmosphere that suggested tranquility and contemplation. Devoid of brushstrokes, the effect was instead created by the careful use of graduations of tone and colour throughout the scene that would envelop the viewer.

Of the many talented luminists of the era from 1850 to 1875, Albert Bierstadt is one of the most famous, even reaching celebrity status in his own time for his many ambitious works depicting the American west.

Modern day landscape photographers with an appreciation for his classic paintings are inspired by the depth and grandeur that Bierstadt was able to create on canvas. And over 150 years later, his luminist style still influences the way many artists portray light in their photographs to create a three dimensional depth that draws the viewer's eye through an image.

This article will introduce Bierstadt with a chronical of his career, followed by a short discussion on how his techniques in portraying landscapes inspire modern day photography through composition and the use of light.



Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902)

Albert Bierstadt was a German-American painter whose parents immigrated to the United States when he was a toddler, settling in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1831. Showing artistic talent at a young age, he began painting with oils in his early twenties and returned to Germany in 1853 to study the art form in Düsseldorf.

Portrait photograph of American landscape painter Albert Bierstadt circa 1870.
c. 1870. Albert Bierstadt portrait National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Under apprenticeship at the famed Royal Academy, Bierstadt adopted a painting style characterized by attention to minute detail, embellished atmospheres and dramatic compositions that romanticized the landscape, as he travelled extensively throughout Europe with American artist friends and mentors.

Returning home in 1857, Albert began painting scenes from New England and New York as an artist associated with the Hudson River School. In 1858, after exhibiting his painting Lake Lucerne from the Swiss Alps at the National Academy of Design in New York City, critics were impressed by his technical proficiency and he received recognition and an honorary membership.

'Lake Lucerne' painting by Albert Bierstadt from 1858 depicting a landscape scene from the Swiss Alps.
'Lake Lucerne', Albert Bierstadt, 1858.

The acclaim and opportunity brought to him by his accomplishments in New York sparked a desire and excitement to travel to the Rocky Mountains and experience for himself the landscapes of the west.



The Westward Expansion

In 1859 Bierstadt, along with Boston artist Francis Frost set out on a grand adventure by wagon train with Colonel Frederick W. Lander, who had been hired as a land surveyor by the U.S. government to remap the Overland Trail.

Using a stereograph camera and his artists tools, he recorded the landscapes of the entire trip in great detail with sketches, photographs, and study paintings along with accounts of the many native American tribes that they encountered along the way. That summer, Bierstadt travelled as far as the Wind River Mountains in Wyoming.

'Thunderstorm In The Rocky Mountains' painting by Albert Bierstadt from 1859.
'Thunderstorm In The Rocky Mountains', Albert Bierstadt, 1859. One of the many paintings Bierstadt created after his first trip to the American west.

Heavy rains had made travel difficult so Albert made the decision to leave Lander's party and returned east to New Bedford, with a collection of Native American artifacts and an eagerness to put the experiences of his journey to canvas. By the end of that year, he had moved to New York, taken up a studio, and created some of the first paintings that anyone had seen of the western landscapes.



The Preeminent American Painter

In 1860, Albert's first public exhibition of his western paintings was an overwhelming success and he was elected as a member of the National Academy of Design, as well as receiving medals in Austria, Bavaria, Belgium, and Germany.

His attention turned briefly to depicting soldiers in paintings created as the Civil War began, before returning west again in 1863 with famous author Fitz Hugh Ludlow and some friends. The esteemed group travelled in style, reaching many destinations such as Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada mountains, Yosemite Valley, the California redwoods, Mount Shasta, and the Cascade Mountains in Oregon, all of which later inspired some of his greatest works.

'The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak' painting by Albert Bierstadt in 1863.
'The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak', Albert Bierstadt, 1863. This painting sold in 1865 for the sum of $25,000, which is the equivalent of over $440,000 in 2022. At the time, it was the largest sum ever paid for an American painting.

By 1864, Bierstadt was reaching the pinnacle of his career and was considered America's leading landscape painter, his brilliant oversized canvases selling for large sums due to his fame and popularity with the American public.

In 1867 he sailed to Europe where he travelled extensively for two years gaining social and business contacts among admirers of his work, including a private reception in London where he exhibited two of his paintings for Queen Victoria.

'The Domes of the Yosemite' painting by Albert Bierstadt from 1867.
'The Domes of Yosemite', Albert Bierstadt, 1867. The painting was commissioned for $25,000 by LeGrand Lockwood, a wealthy New York financier to grace the walls of a new home he had built in Connecticut. This was Bierstadt's largest painting, measuring ten by fifteen feet.

After his return to America, he headed west again to the Yosemite and Sierra Nevada regions, remaining in California until 1873, a period during which some of his most popular paintings were created. Bierstadt's 1874 piece 'The Discovery Of The Hudson' was placed in the United States Capital Building, and he was invited to the White House the following year to meet President Rutherford B. Hayes.



The Later Years

The 1880's marked an unfortunate downturn in Bierstadt's success, when his New York mansion and studio 'Malkasten' was destroyed by fire in 1882, along with many of his studies and paintings.

In 1889, his painting The Last Of The Buffalo, which he considered to be one of his best works, was rejected by the American selection committee when he submitted it for the Paris Exposition Universelle. His harshest critics felt that his style had become old-fashioned, his canvases too large and 'self indulgent', and his atmospheric effects too exaggerated.

'The Last Of The Buffalo' painting by Albert Bierstadt from 1888.
'The Last Of The Buffalo', Albert Bierstadt, 1889. The painting was considered controversial in its time, considering the near extinction of the remaining buffalo.

His wife Rosalie had been diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1876, so they spent many winters in the warmer climate of Nassau in the Bahamas to ease her condition. She passed away in 1893 and although he remarried a wealthy woman the next year, they kept their finances separate.

Despite his continued travel and painting in his later years, his popularity lessened as his work was overshadowed by newer artists and techniques like French Impressionism. In 1895, his lavish lifestyle resulted in personal bankruptcy and he was forced to sell all of his property and paintings.

On February 18, 1902 Albert Bierstadt passed away suddenly after a walk in New York City at the age of 72, largely forgotten by the public. He was buried beside his parents at the Rural Cemetery in New Bedford, Massachusetts.



A Lasting Legacy

Decades passed before interest in Bierstadt's work was rejuvenated in the 1960's upon exhibition of some of his smaller study paintings. He was a prolific artist, with at least 500 known paintings, most of which have survived, and estimates of as many as 4,000 completed during his lifetime.

Today many of his works are displayed with pride in the world's most prestigious museums and galleries, like the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Metropolitan Museum of Art In New York City.

In May 2008, his most expensive painting, 'Indians Spear Fishing' sold at a Christie's auction for US $7,321,000. And in the last decade, at least fourteen of his paintings have sold at auction for varying sums between one million and five million dollars.

'Indians Spear Fishing' painting by Albert Bierstadt.
'Indians Spear Fishing', Albert Bierstadt, 1862.

Albert Bierstadt is often credited with introducing the grandeur of the unspoiled wilderness of the west for the first time to the eyes of easterners, even though he often embellished, idealized, or even made up scenes or details in many of his paintings to inspire and create awe within the viewer.

Because his work was connected to the American identity and was symbolic of brighter futures, his unapologetic style serves as a memoir of one of the most important eras of exploration in America, and he is viewed by many art historians as a national treasure.



Bierstadt's Luminist Influence On Photography

In landscape photography, there are a number of elements to be considered that are important for an image to be compelling to the viewer. First and foremost, composition is critical so that the image will have an obvious subject. And we know that the human eye is naturally drawn towards brightness, contrast, and color.

Careful consideration when combining these elements within a photograph is the key to our goal, which is to intentionally direct the eyes of the viewer through the image with a balance that makes it interesting and pleasing to look at.

In the real world, photographers cannot control the light or atmosphere, although we can deliberately position leading lines and other elements in our images for pleasing compositions, and use post processing techniques to further enhance light and shadow.

Methods such as dodging (brightening), burning (darkening), colour saturation, contrast, blur, and painting with light are all techniques that can be used to draw or remove attention from certain areas of an image, in order to direct the viewer's eyes and create dimension and atmosphere.

These approaches have been used by photographers for decades, even in the film era when masters such as Ansel Adams used skillful darkroom procedures to alter and enhance his prints.

'Yosemite Valley' oil painting by Albert Bierstadt.
'Yosemite Valley', Albert Bierstadt, 1868.

Albert Bierstadt was a master of using these techniques in his paintings to create awe in the viewer. Foregrounds were painted with great detail and contrast, often with darker colours, using objects like trees and rocks in different sizes to create depth.

He used lakes or ponds in many scenes, sometimes placing hard edged subjects like people or animals against the water which made them more prominent, while adding reflections of nearby objects like trees or mountains.

Skillful depiction of directional light using bright colours combined with darker shadow details gave his paintings incredible texture and realism. Brightness in selected areas created sunlight on the land, while his backgrounds and distant skies were often luminous and full of complex cloud formations, haze, and atmosphere.

The photograph below shows a landscape with similar lighting conditions and subject matter as Bierstadt's 'Yosemite Valley' painting above. The foreground trees are larger, more detailed, and darker in colour with deep shadows while the smaller trees against the brightness of the water creates contrast.

Midground tones are brighter and slightly muted with less contrast which implies distance, while the bright, hazy sky and mountains on the horizon all combine together to create atmosphere and draws the viewer's eye.

Bearhat Mountain and Hidden lake at sunset in Glacier National Park, Montana.
'Bearhat Mountain', © Dean McLeod Photography.

It is interesting to consider that Bierstadt worked in an era when photography was still in its infancy and without colour, and although it is known that he used photographs occasionally to document some of his scenes, he mainly used sketches, study paintings, and keen observation of the interaction of light and shadow on the land to convey the realism and grandeur in his work.

'Yosemite Valley Glacier Point Trail' oil painting by Albert Bierstadt.
'Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail', Albert Bierstadt, 1873.

Above, 'Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail' is a perfect example of the luminist style, and how Bierstadt intentionally leads the viewer though the scene with masterful use of light and leading lines.

Starting with the detailed cliff in the foreground, the angle and height of the trees drops our eyes from left to right, down into the valley below, where the leading line of a river guides our eyes through the distance into the bright golden light of the sky with magical atmospheric haze.

Below, this photograph, albeit with different subject matter shows a similar backlit composition with careful use of brightness and leading lines to guide the viewer.

Badlands in Dinosaur Provincial Park, Alberta at sunset with bright orange clouds.
'Afterburner', © Dean McLeod Photography.

The detailed foreground lines direct the eye towards the center of the image to the valley bottom, where the bright soil points directly to the blazing sunstar and colorful cloud formations. Some use of dodging and burning also enhances the texture of the foreground, while keeping the brighter areas of the image towards the center, which holds the viewer's eye.

'The Snow Mountain' oil painting by Albert Bierstadt.
'The Snow Mountain', Albert Bierstadt, ca. 1863-1868. The size, materials, and paint handling of this small oil on paper painting are suggestive of a transcript or study piece from an unknown location.

Above, we see a small oil on paper painting by Bierstadt generically entitled 'The Snow Mountain'. Although it is not dated and appears to be a simple onsite study piece, the subject matter clearly enthralled the artist. Here, from an elevated vantage point, he employs the use of light and shadow to point the eye directly at his subject, a grand snowcapped mountain peak surrounded by dark clouds indicative of a passing storm.

Below, a photograph of Gap Mountain in the Canadian Rockies with very similar elements illustrates the dynamic effect of light and contrast to showcase a subject. The most exciting photographs are often created when nature does all of the work, and we are lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time.

The snowy peak Gap Mountain in the Canadian Rockies receives strong sunlight from a gap in the clouds after a passing thunderstorm.
'Drama Queen', Gap Mountain, Kananaskis, Canadian Rockies. © Dean McLeod Photography. The sunlight disappeared moments after the photo was taken, which completely altered the scene.

A late afternoon rainstorm left the sky with a deep, dark blue tone when a sudden break in the clouds to the west let through a bright stream of sunlight, illuminating the peak in breathtaking fashion.

Captured with a telephoto lens from an elevated position on the opposite side of a valley, the striking contrast of the bright orange rockface against a deep blue sky made for a powerful portrait of the mountain, while the shadowed base and dark sky combine to create a natural vignette which further draws the eye to subject.



Conclusion

As we have seen, the body of work created by Albert Bierstadt made him the most popular American landscape painter of his era through the use of powerful symbolism and sheer technical proficiency. His luminist style glorified the promise of the west that inspired countless settlers to migrate during the westward expansion in hopes of brighter futures in their own country.

Today, Bierstadt's canvases that survived are highly prized artifacts of history, and just as he created hope and gave beauty to the people of his time, the lasting effects of his influence continues in the creation of art to this day.