Painted in 1867, Lake in the Sierra Nevada is a luminous example of the atmospheric landscapes that earned Albert Bierstadt his reputation as one of America’s most distinguished artists of the mid-19th century. Inspired by the unspoiled wilderness he encountered in the West, Bierstadt set out to record the landscape for posterity, focusing on the natural wonders of the largely unexplored and undocumented territories of Yosemite, the High Sierras and Yellowstone.
Bierstadt’s initial trip west occurred in 1859, when he and fellow artist Francis Frost joined Frederick Lander’s survey party destined for the Rocky Mountains. While the group ventured as far as California, Bierstadt traveled no further than the South Pass of the Continental Divide in southwestern Wyoming. Nancy Anderson writes, “By 18 September 1859, Bierstadt had returned to New Bedford [Massachusetts] with a full complement of sketches, photographs, and Indian artifacts. Within three months, however, he had moved to New York and taken a studio in the Tenth Street Studio Building, joining Emanuel Leutze, Worthington Whittredge, Sanford Robinson Gifford, and William Haseltine – all friends from his student days in Düsseldorf” (Albert Bierstadt, Art and Enterprise, New York, 1990, p. 140). Following his initial journey, Bierstadt set out on a second trip in 1863 with California as his intended destination. Accompanied by New York writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow, the trip was documented in letters detailing their experiences, which were published in a number of periodicals including the New York Evening Post and the Atlantic Monthly. Bierstadt returned to the East Coast by mid-December and after spending the holidays in New Bedford, settled back in New York.
By January 1864 the sketches and objects Bierstadt collected during his 1863 trip were on display in his studio and he began to produce the paintings that would mark the most successful period of his professional life. The exhibition of his colossal The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak, 1863 (Fig. 3) at the New York Metropolitan Fair catapulted Bierstadt to national and international renown and his new-found fame translated into almost immediate financial dividends. By 1865 Bierstadt had sold The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak to James McHenry, a prominent railroad entrepreneur from London, for the then astounding sum of $25,000. The picture was eventually exhibited before Queen Victoria of England. In 1867 Bierstadt wrote, “I was invited to send my pictures to the Royal Palace at Osborne for Her Majesty and the Royal Family to see; I was also desired to accompany them…She seemed much pleased with my works” (Ibid., p. 184). Entranced by Bierstadt's idealized interpretations of a frontier they had never seen, patrons paid record prices for the artist's spectacular canvases.
Bierstadt's paintings served as a clarion call to the country that the American West was not only worth documenting, but worth preserving. With the Civil War still fresh in people’s minds, many were distressed and left questioning their traditional values. These dramatic views of the western territories provided an escape from the harsh realities of the recent national conflict and the ensuing bitterness of reconstruction. The West in general seemed to afford a reconnection with the antebellum era and an opportunity for renewal not unlike the promise of America to the first generation of settlers.
The individual elements of Bierstadt's finished paintings are rendered with exquisite detail and serve to convey the artist’s profound appreciation for the West. The precise location of Lake in Sierra Nevada is not known but it is intended principally, as noted by the title, to represent or evoke a region of the Sierra Nevada, possibly near Lake Tahoe or Mono Lake, which lies east of the Yosemite Valley. Recounting the experience of seeing Lake Tahoe during their 1863 expedition, Fitz Ludlow wrote, “Just across the boundary, we sat down on the brink of glorious Lake Tahoe, …a crystal sheet of water fresh-distilled from the snow-peaks, its granite bottom visible at the depth of a hundred feet, its banks a celestial garden, lying in a basin thirty-five miles long by ten wide, and nearly seven thousand feet above the Pacific level. Geography has no superior to this glorious sea, this chalice of divine cloud-wine held sublimely up against the very press whence it was wrung. Here, virtually at the end of the overland journey, since our feet pressed the green borders of the Golden state, we sat down to rest, feeling that one short hour, one little league, had translated us out of the infernal world into heaven” (“Among the Mormons,” Atlantic Monthly, April 1864, pp. 494-95).
The serenity of the Edenic wilderness depicted in Lake in the Sierra Nevada reflects Bierstadt’s majestic portrayal of the scenery he encountered. The morning sun suffuses the lake and surrounding peaks in golden light, representing not only the dawn of a new day, but also the beginning of a new era of peace in post-war America. Bierstadt’s deliberate exclusion of animals reinforces the sense of solitude felt by the viewer. The light-filled landscape is distilled to its most basic elements: earth, rock, water and sky; it is a scene of absolute stillness and rugged purity. The composition gives the viewer the sense of having entered into hallowed ground, a truly sacred space where nature is all powerful. Mr. James Nichols, the original owner of Lake in the Sierra Nevada, corresponded directly with Bierstadt about the acquisition of this picture. After several letters back and forth Mr. Nichols, having rejected a number of works offered by the artist, enthusiastically chose the present painting.
Please note that two letters written from Albert Bierstadt to James Nichols, related to the purchase of this work, will accompany the lot.