Albert Bierstadt’s beautifully crafted paintings played to a market eager, in the 1860s, for spectacular views of the nation’s frontiers. Bierstadt was an immigrant and a hardworking entrepreneur who had grown rich pairing his artistic skill with a talent for self-promotion. The unveiling of one of his canvases was a theatrical event. He sold tickets and planted news stories, strategies that one critic described as the “vast machinery of advertisement and puffery.” A “great picture” was elaborately framed and installed in a room with carefully controlled lighting. At the appointed time, the work was revealed to thunderous applause.
Bierstadt painted Among the Sierra Nevada, California in his Rome studio, then showed the canvas in Berlin and London before shipping it to the United States. Works such as this fueled the image of America as a promised land just when Europeans were immigrating to this country in great numbers. When the painting was shown in Boston, one critic recognized that the landscape was a fiction invented from Bierstadt’s sketches of the West. Nevertheless, the writer felt that it represented “what our scenery ought to be, if it is not so in reality.”
Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum
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