Born in Solingen, Prussia, Albert Bierstadt spent his early years in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where his parents settled two years after his birth. Henry Bierstadt, the artist's father, found work as a cooper in the capital of America's whaling industry.
Primarily self-taught, Albert Bierstadt began his professional career in 1850 when he advertised his services as a drawing instructor. Three years later he departed for Europe, hoping a distant relative and prominent member of the Dusseldorf school of artists would help him obtain formal instruction. After nearly three years in Dusseldorf, Bierstadt joined American artist Worthington Whittredge on an extended sketching tour through Germany, Switzerland, and Italy. Following a winter in Rome and a sketching tour to Naples and Capri, Bierstadt returned to New Bedford in the fall of 1857. Described as a "timid, awkward, unpolished specimen of a Yankee" when he arrived in Dusseldorf in 1853, Bierstadt returned to New Bedford four years later a socially poised and technically mature painter.
Bierstadt's European apprenticeship served him well the following spring when he journeyed west for the first time, joining Frederick W. Lander's survey party bound for the Rocky Mountains. Though not the first artist to see or even paint the Rockies, Bierstadt was the first who brought with him superior technical skills and considerable experience painting European alpine peaks. For Americans eager to finally see the mountains a generation of travelers had described as "America's alps," Bierstadt's credentials were near perfect.
By late September 1859 Bierstadt had returned to New Bedford laden with field sketches, stereo photographs, and Indian artifacts. Within three months he had moved to New York, established himself in the Tenth Street Studio Building, and began to exhibit the western paintings that would soon make his reputation. He spent several weeks in Yosemite Valley completing the plein air studies he would later use to compose several of his most important paintings. Following a trip north through Oregon to the Columbia River, Bierstadt returned east. Utilizing studies gathered during all stages of his journey, Bierstadt completed, by the end of the decade, a remarkable series of large scale paintings that not only secured his position as the premier painter of the western American landscape but also offered a war-torn nation a golden image of their own Promised Land.
Critical disfavor and a falling market plagued Bierstadt during his later years. The most telling blow came in 1889 when the American committee charged with selecting works for the Exposition Universelle in Paris rejected Bierstadt's entry, The Last of the Buffalo (originally acquired 1909 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art; since 2014, National Gallery of Art, Washington). Described as too large but more likely judged old-fashioned, the painting marked the end of Bierstadt's series of monumental western landscapes.
Bierstadt died suddenly in New York on February 18, 1902, largely forgotten. Ironically, renewed interest in his work was sparked by a series of exhibitions in the 1960s highlighting not the great western paintings but rather the small oil sketches he had used as "color notes" for the panoramic landscapes that had brought him such success in the 1860s.