Many art lovers who enjoy Albert Bierstadt’s art, especially his landscape paintings of the American West or the European Alpines, only think of Bierstadt as a brilliant and successful painter. They know that he was successful and sold many paintings during his lifetime and that most of his paintings are worth millions today.
Few people know that although Albert Bierstadt’s paintings were trendy and in demand in the 1860s and 1870s, he also experienced tragedy and loss in his life and career. Not only did his wife pass away at a relatively young age, but art collectors also lost interest in his paintings at the end of his career.
In this article, we’ll look at the tragedies in his life. Then we’ll look at the “dark times” and briefly the “good times” in his life and career.
The Tragedy that could’ve stopped Bierstadt’s Art Studies
The German-American Bierstadt painter was born in 1830 in Solingen, Germany. When he was one year old, he and his parents moved to the United States. At 23, Albert left the United States to go to the country of his birth.
One of the main reasons why Bierstadt returned to Europe was to get an art education. He realized that he had to get specialized training and that Europe would be the best place for his studies. Moreover, his mother’s cousin, Johann Peter Hasenclever, a well-known Dusseldorf painter, would help him get accepted for art studies.
Unfortunately, the first of many tragedies in Albert’s life happened a few days before he arrived in Europe. Hasenclever unexpectedly died. Suddenly, all the study and living arrangements were not in place anymore.
Luckily for Bierstadt, he met two artists who helped him, and both would later become his good friends. The artists were the American Worthington Whittredge and the German-born Emmanuel Leutze.
The Tragedy led to Better Times
Art scholars sometimes speculate that if Hasenclever did not die, Bierstadt could have missed the opportunity to work with artists such as Whittredge and Leutze. Instead, Albert studied with them at the informal art school known as the Malkasten. He also remained in Düsseldorf and Europe for three years and traveled, painted, and studied with several Malkasten painters during those three years.
In 1856, Albert joined Whittredge and other Malkasten artists for a painting tour of Switzerland and Italy. Many “Plein-air” Albert Bierstadt artworks were created during this tour, and this painting style would later inspire the large and famous Albert Bierstadt paintings. In addition, the European experience inspired Albert Bierstadt’s works created in the Rocky Mountains after his return to the US.
Two Personal Tragedies
Unfortunately, tragedies were also waiting in the US. In 1876, Bierstadt’s wife, Rosalie, was diagnosed with consumption, the common term for tuberculosis. Because of her tuberculosis, she stayed most of the year in Nassau at the Royal Victoria Hotel while Albert stayed in the US. He would visit her from time to time by taking a steamer from New York to Nassau.
It was difficult for Bierstadt, but fortunately, he could afford his wife’s recovery stay in the Bahamas at that stage. The Royal Victorian was a famous TB sanatorium in the Bahamas where wealthy Americans could have healthcare stays.
Rosalie died when she was only 52 years old. Unfortunately, she died while she was in Nassau. Bierstadt was in New York at that stage. Because he couldn’t have been with her when she died, Bierstadt went into a state of sorrow and depression. Art historians call it his “tragedy period”. One of Albert Bierstadt’s works created during this time is “View of Nassau, Bahamas”. Many art collectors regard “View of Nassau” as one of Albert Bierstadt’s best paintings, although it is not considered typical of Albert Bierstadt’s art.
In 1882, another tragic incident happened. His mansion and art studio overlooking the Hudson River in Irvington, New York, were destroyed by a fire. Many of his artworks were destroyed during the fire, and most of his personal belongings, which he had collected over the years, were destroyed as well. Bierstadt never rebuilt the mansion and studio.
Before the Financial Tragedy
When Albert Bierstadt started to exhibit his works in the 1860s, especially his rugged landscapes of Europe and the American West, the works became very popular. Art collectors loved the romanticized way he depicted nature and the grand scale of his works.
Albert Bierstadt’s art captured the imagination of many 19th-century art collectors, and he was one of the few painters to enjoy success during his lifetime. His paintings sold at record prices. For instance, the painting “Rocky Mountain, Lander’s Peak” sold for $25,000 in 1865. He also sold other large landscapes, such as “A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie,” for $20,000 or more.
He deemed the promotion of artwork as an integral part of an artist’s “duty” due to this philosophy, and he was financially well-off early in his artistic career.
Unfortunately, fashion and trends changed, and by the end of the 1800s, art collectors’ were more interested in the new Impressionist styles than in Bierstadt’s landscapes. Suddenly, Albert Bierstadt paintings were not famous anymore, and his sales drastically declined.
In the 1880s, Albert Bierstadt couldn’t, for example, sell his “View of Nassau, Bahamas”. Nowadays, it is regarded as one of Bierstadt’s best paintings. In 2018 at a Sotheby’s art auction, the painting’s suggested bid price was $700,000 to $1 million.
After his first wife’s death, Albert Bierstadt married a wealthy widow, but the couple kept their finances separate. Finally, without an income from his paintings, Albert declared bankruptcy in 1895.
By the time Albert Bierstadt died in 1902, he was almost totally forgotten. He would remain overlooked for another 60 years. Then finally, his paintings were rediscovered in 1960 and became very popular again.
Albert Bierstadt was an artist whose works were in high demand during his lifetime, but unfortunately; art collectors lost their interest in his works over time. This resulted in the tragedy that a financially very successful artist had to declare bankruptcy at the end of his career. And he also had to deal with his depression after the tragedy of his young wife’s death; and the destruction of his mansion, art studio, and personal belongings in a devastating fire.