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Photo: Howard Giske

Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast


Albert Bierstadt

Born Solingen, Prussia, 1830; died New York City, New York, 1902

It is, we are told, in all essential features, a portrait of the place depicted, and we need the assurance to satisfy us that it is not a superb vision of that dreamland into which our much admired painter has made at least as many visits as he has made among the material wonders of the West.

— On Bierstadt's painting of Puget Sound, from "On the Easel; Return of the Artists to their Studios," New York Evening Mail, October 24, 1870

Albert Bierstadt was a great adventurer and made many trips to the United States' western frontier regions, which is why one enthusiastic New York reviewer believed this painting represented the artist's faithful "portrait of a place." But Bierstadt had likely not yet traveled to the Washington Territory in 1870. The painting was possibly a commission from a New York shipping magnate who had made his enormous fortune on the Pacific coast. Enterprising artist that he was, Bierstadt did not shy away from the challenge of painting a place he had not yet seen.

Oil on canvas, 52 1/2 x 82 in. (133.4 x 208.3 cm) Frame: 71 1/2 × 101 1/2 × 7 in. (181.6 × 257.8 × 17.8 cm), Gift of the Friends of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, with additional funds from General Acquisition Fund , 2000.70,

Signed: Signed and dated, LL, "A Bierstadt, 1870"

Provenance: Abiel Abbot Low (1812-1893), Brooklyn, New York, by March 1872; bequeathed to either his son Abbot Augustus Low (1844-1912), New York, or his son Seth Low (1850-1916), New York, 1893; [Emmanuel David (died 1949), David Gallery, New York, before June 1916-1949]; bequeathed to his nephew, Philip R. Herzig, New York, 1949-2000

Now on view at Seattle Art Museum

A Commission or a Lucky Sale?

The first documented owner of Bierstadt's Puget Sound was Abiel Abbot Low, who had the painting in his collection by 1872. Low was one of the wealthiest men in New York, an importer of tea and other products from China, owner of a line of clipper ships dispatched to the Far East and the West Coast of the United States and a noted collector of American art of the time. It is possible that this grandly scaled painting was a commission from Low, for it is hard to imagine that Bierstadt would have embarked on such an ambitious undertaking without some assurance of a sale. As a collector of contemporary painting, Low would almost certainly have relished owning a canvas by Bierstadt, especially if the subject represented a region of the country where he, Low, had business interests. Once the novelty of Bierstadt's western subjects wore off among East Coast viewers—and it did fairly rapidly, by the end of the 1860s—the principal enthusiasts for Bierstadt's canvases were investors who had financial interests in the western regions—California railroad magnates Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington, for instance, and other men of means and enterprise like Abiel Abbot Low.

Bierstadt did not shrink from the challenge of painting an area of the western United States that he likely had not seen—a landscape that he only imagined from his brief experience in the lower Columbia River region of the Oregon Territory, where he had been with Fitz Hugh Ludlow in 1863. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the sale of the canvas to Low—either it was a commission or a lucky match of picture to patron—the painting ultimately landed in the hands of a man who was connected to the Pacific Northwest by virtue of his shipping business, as few others in America could have been in the early 1870s.

Portrait of Abiel Abbot Low   With permission of the University Archives, Columbia University in the City of New York

Bierstadt Promotes Puget Sound

No American painter of the nineteenth century was as skilled a marketer of his paintings and his artistic persona as Albert Bierstadt. He regularly built interest in new works among members of the art press and potential buyers by teasing them—allowing them, for example, to see the sketches that might become large, finished pictures—or by inviting them to see works in progress in his studio. No doubt it was part of his well-planned marketing effort that Bierstadt chose to work on this grand canvas, Puget Sound, not in his own studio, in his home some distance outside New York City, up the Hudson River, but in the Manhattan studio of an artist friend, in a place where Bierstadt's progress on the work could be easily seen by visitors.

It seems from accounts of the critics who saw the painting as it was unveiled that Bierstadt may have represented it as a true-to-life depiction of Puget Sound, a view based on his own experience there. Yet, in truth, he probably had not been to the region, since his documented travels in 1863 place him no farther north than the lower Columbia River in the Oregon Territory, on what had been a brief visit to the Pacific Northwest. It is also possible that viewers of the painting simply assumed that this artist, so well traveled on the western frontier, surely had seen the remote place that he painted.

Bierstadt must have known that a canvas so large and so dramatic as this one was sure to be noticed in any public exhibition, and he unveiled it publicly at the first opportunity: in December 1870, at the monthly exhibition and reception at the fashionable Union League Club in New York, long a noted venue for showings of new work by New York's leading artists. Bierstadt was a prominent member of the Union League Club and an admired friend of the monied and cultured men who were the club's members.


Albert Bierstadt

Born Solingen, Prussia, 1830; died New York City, New York, 1902

His early opportunities were meager, and he was in the true sense of the word a self-made man.

—From Bierstadt's obituary, "A Self-Made Artist," in The Outlook magazine, March 1, 1902.

Born in Germany, Bierstadt was raised in New Bedford, Massachusetts. He began his career as an itinerant drawing instructor, before he ever received formal artistic training. In 1853, he went to the art capital of Düsseldorf to study the German traditions of landscape and history painting. After four years of study and travel in Germany, Switzerland and Italy, he returned to New Bedford as an artist of extraordinary ability and ambition, which he quickly made manifest in his large panoramic and richly detailed canvases of European and American scenery.

The turning point in Bierstadt's career came in 1859, when he went west with the government-sponsored overland survey party of Frederick W. Lander. In western scenery Bierstadt recognized that he had found a novel subject for American landscape art, and he made western views his stock in trade for the next five decades of his career.

Albert Bierstadt, 1871  
Courtesy of Cornell University Library, Making of America Digital Collection

Albert Bierstadt Goes West

[F]ew can look upon it without the desire to see this wondrous Western land. The art is indeed noble that awakens these yearnings—it is holy teaching that begets the longing for closer communion with those scenes wherein, our souls expanding, we take measure of the majesty and sublimity of Nature.

—From commentary on Bierstadt's Puget Sound in New York Evening Mail, October 24, 1870.

In April 1859, Bierstadt and an artist friend, painter Francis Seth Frost, traveled from Boston to Saint Joseph, Missouri, to join Frederick W. Lander's survey party bound for the Rocky Mountains. Here Bierstadt found the subject of the American landscape to rival if not surpass the sublime mountain landscapes of Europe and the long-popular local hills known to New York and New England painters. As he wrote from the trail in a report for the popular art journal the Crayon:
The mountains are very fine; as seen from the plains, they resemble very much the Bernese Alps. . . . They are of granite, the same as the Swiss mountains and their jagged summits, covered with snow and mingling with the clouds, present a scene which every lover of landscape would gaze upon in unqualified delight. . . . 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.

Bierstadt traveled with the Lander party as far as the Wind River mountains, making oil sketches and taking photographs that would serve him later in the studio as the basis for carefully constructed and grandly scaled western scenes.

Surveyor's Wagon in the Rockies, ca. 1859, Albert Bierstadt, American, 1830-1902, oil on paper mounted on masonite, 8 x 13 1/8 in.   Saint Louis Art Museum, Gift of J. Lionberger Davis, 158:1953  

Following the extraordinary success of the first western paintings that came of Bierstadt's 1859 trip to the Rocky Mountains, the artist planned immediately to return to the region. His next trip westward did not occur, however, until 1863. Undertaken in the dark days of the Civil War, Bierstadt's second journey would be far more extensive than his first, taking him all the way to the West Coast. It was also a trip publicized to great effect, for Bierstadt's traveling companion on this journey was the prominent journalist Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who covered their adventures for the New York Evening Post. Ludlow's account contributed to the eagerness with which critics and picture buyers anticipated the new canvases to come from Bierstadt's latest western experiences. It was on this trip that Bierstadt first saw Yosemite and captivated all Americans by his views of that magnificent valley in the High Sierra.

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, 1865, Albert Bierstadt, American, 1830-1902, oil on canvas, 64 1/4 x 96 1/2 in.   Collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art; Gift of the Birmingham Public Library, 1991.879  

Yosemite subjects dominated Bierstadt's painting activity after his 1863 trip west. But Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast was another of the dramatic west coast subjects that followed from this trip. Whatever the artist may have claimed had been his experience in the Pacific Northwest in 1863, it seems unlikely that he actually traveled as far north as Puget Sound. Although Bierstadt and Ludlow had intended to extend their west coast travels to the Washington Territory and lower Canada, it appears that they got only as far as the Columbia River in Oregon. Bierstadt's one documented visit to the Puget Sound region would not occur for another twenty-five years, in the fall of 1889, when he traveled from Alaska down to Tacoma, traversing Puget Sound and there making studies of Mount Rainier.

Wreck of the "Ancon" in Loring Bay, Alaska, 1889, Albert Bierstadt, American, 1830-1902, oil on paper mounted on masonite, 14 1/8 x 19 3/4 in.   Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Martha C. Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815-1865, 47.1250. Photograph © 2007 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston  

Bierstadt's third trip to the West was his lengthiest, lasting more than two years. This time he was able to travel from New York via the newly completed transcontinental railroad. San Francisco became his base of operations, and he maintained a studio there, although he traveled frequently and well beyond the city, making several extended trips into Yosemite and more remote regions of the Sierra Nevada.

From this point forward, because of the ease of transcontinental travel via railroad, Bierstadt would make other intermittent trips to California and the Canadian Pacific. It was in the fall of 1889 that he traveled from Alaska to the Washington Territory, making his first documented trip to the Puget Sound region, which he had painted from his imagination nearly twenty years earlier.

The moment celebrated in this photograph is the joining of the transcontinental railroad at Promontory, Utah.

East and West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail, 1869, Andrew J. Russell, American, 1830-1902, wet plate glass negative

Original negative in the collection of the American Geographical Society of New York  

"The Bierstadt Period" in American Art

To the grandiose subjects and broad treatment of what may be called the Bierstadt period in American landscape has succeeded the period of comparatively small and very intimate landscapes painted by a group of younger men educated in foreign schools who are separated from the earlier methods, not only by a generation in time, but by a revolution in American art.

—From Bierstadt's obituary, "A Self-Made Artist," in The Outlook magazine, March 1, 1902

Bierstadt and other of his New York-based artist contemporaries came to be known as representatives of the Hudson River School of painting. That designation would seem to suggest that they had a strong regional focus. Nothing could be further from the truth, however. Bierstadt and the landscape painters of his generation were among the most adventuresome in our country's history, as they ranged widely, especially into the remote reaches of the western frontier. The term Hudson River School was, in fact, a derogatory term; it was assigned to Bierstadt and others by a few art critics and some of the succeeding generation of European-trained American painters, who derided the earlier artists for their lack of training in the modern art centers of Paris and Munich and for their enduring dedication to painting American scenery.

Picture Gallery, Metropolitan Fair, N.Y., 1864, Bierstadt Brothers, albumen stereograph   The New York Public Library, United States in Stereo: In the Robert N. Dennis Collection of Stereoscopic Views, G91F217_010F  

A Country Home, 1854, Frederic Edwin Church, 65.80   Photo: Paul Macapia  

Bierstadt: From Rags to Riches to Obscurity

In the 1860s, no American painter was as renowned at home and abroad as Albert Bierstadt. But as the taste for his type of American landscape art waned through that decade, Bierstadt's reputation fell precipitously. By the time of his death in 1902, Bierstadt's presence on the American art scene was of so little consequence that his passing warranted little notice in the art press.

Click through the examples by artists of the succeeding generation:

The Artist Sketching in Yosemite Valley, 1863, Albert Bierstadt, American, 1830-1902, oil on board, 13 3/4 x 19 3/4 in.   Private Collection; Seattle, Washington. Image Courtesy of A.J. Kollar Fine Paintings, LLC; Seattle, Washington  

On the Canal, 1893, Theodore Robinson, 2005.161   Photo: Susan Cole  

Hemlock Pool, Autumn, ca, 1894, John H. Twachtman, 2005.166   Photo: Susan Cole  


Patti Junker describes Bierstadt's painting of the Puget Sound

Patti Junker discusses the Hudson River School Painters

Patti Junker on how Bierstadt came to paint Puget Sound

Patti Junker shares impressions of landscapes in the East and West