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Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak

Collection: 
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

 

Bierstadt probably wrote the following description of The Rocky Mountains to promote sales of reproductions of the work. He emphasized the painting’s authenticity despite its being a composite work created in a New York studio:

       “This noble picture is the result of a vision to the ‘Far West,’ undertaken by the Artist in the summer of 1858, in company with the late General Lander’s exploring expedition. The various studies of the country, and of the people of that region, necessary for the present work, were made by him at that time, and are in every instance from nature…
       The particular portion which the Artist has here depicted, lies at a distance of about seven hundred miles northeast of San Francisco, and portrays the western slope of the mountains… The principal peak of the group is Mt. Lander. Its summit is covered with perpetual snow, and immense glaciers are formed upon its sides. Traces of their movement are shown in the picture by the furrowed lines which scar the slopes of the mountains.... The effect of light and shade in this picture is one of its chief attractions, and has been admirably managed by the artist.
       This picture possesses a geographical and historical value, such as few works by modern artists have obtained. Nor will time destroy its worth, but rather add to it. It is not only a correct representation of a portion of our country about which we as yet know comparatively little; but it introduces into it the every-day life of that race which, before the advance of civilization, fades away like the mists of morning before the rays of the rising sun. Their customs and habits through it will be preserved when, perhaps, the scene which it depicts, will no longer echo to the ring of their war-cry, or mark their stealthy step following in the chase. Upon that very plain where now an Indian village stands, a city, populated by our descendants, may rise, and in its art-galleries this picture may eventually find a resting place.”

Anonymous, “A. Bierstadt’s Great Picture. The Rocky Mountains, Engraved by James Smillie.” Flyer. (New York: E. Bierstadtm 1863; reprinted in Sarah Burns and John Davis, American Art to 1900: A Documentary History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009), p. 503.


One contemporary critic considered Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains singularly American in character and an expression of the high moral ideals of the United States:

“It is purely an American scene, and from the faithful and elaborate delineation of the Indiana village, a form of life now rapidly disappearing from the earth, may be truly called a historic landscape.  It is the curtained continent, with its sublime natural forms and its rude savage human life; nor do we recall any work in which the subject is so strikingly presented. It is an extremely interesting picture, stimulating the imagination and satisfying curiosity… this work of Bierstadt’s inspires the temperate cheerfulness and promise of the region it depicts, and the imagination contemplates it as the possible seat of supreme civilization.”

Anonymous, “The New Pictures,” Harper’s Weekly, no. 8 (26 March 1864); reprinted in Sarah Burns and John Davis,  American Art to 1900: A Documentary History (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2009),  p. 507.


Brucia Witthoft provides insight into the commercial and legal aspects of making prints after artist’s paintings:

“When Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) exhibited his new painting, The Rocky Mountains, in early 1863, it was a popular success, receiving very favorable notices from the press….It was a foregone conclusion that such a magnificent and popular work would be engraved, and soon. Indeed, by the sixth of May, Albert Bierstadt and James Smillie (1807-1885), one of America’s greatest engravers, met to sign an agreement for Smillie to make a print of The Rocky Mountains….There is no doubt that the artist wished to record a specific site and culture. His advertisement for the engraving described the subject and its importance at length, suggesting motives for its purchase:

  This picture possesses a geographical and historical value, such as few works by
  modern artists have obtained. Nor will time destroy its worth, but rather add to it. It
  is not only a correct representation of a portion of our country of which we as yet
  know comparatively little; but it introduces into it the every-day life of that race
  which, before the advance of civilization, fades away like the mists of morning
  before the rays of the rising sun. Their customs and habits through it will be
  preserved when, perhaps, the scene which it depicts, will no longer echo to the ring
  of their war-cry, or mark their stealthy step following in the chase. Upon that very
  plain where now an Indian village stands, a city, populated by our descendants, may
  rise, and in its art-galleries this picture may eventually find a resting place.

 …Albert Bierstadt must have envisioned the profitable prospect of engraving his work almost before the paint had dried, for the first notice of the painting appeared when it was exhibited in his studio on February 2, 1863, and the lawyer had the contract ready for signing on May 6….The contract stipulates that Smillie would provide a good quality steel plate and Bierstadt would retain ownership of that plate, and of any working drawings or photographs which might be made to aid the engraver. Bierstadt also specified that he had the right to inspect the work in progress ‘as often as once a day’ provided he observed ‘reasonable hours,’ and that the engraver would supply him with proofs ‘to determine the condition and progress’ of the work. Bierstadt agreed to pay a total of $4000 in a complicated schedule of seventeen monthly installments and one final payment of $1000 if the work was finished in good time. In plain words, Smillie provided only his skilled labor and was to be compensated only in money. He had no rights to artistic materials or to a share of future profits.”

Brucia Witthoft, “The History of James Smillie’s Engraving after Albert Bierstadt’s The Rocky Mountains,” American Art Journal, vol. 19, no. 2 (Spring 1987): 40-1.

About the Artist

Born: Solingen, Germany, 7 January 1830
Died: New York, 18 February 1902 in New York
Nationality: German-American