BIERSTADT AND OTHER 19TH-CENTURY AMERICAN PAINTERS IN CONTEXT
LANCE MAYER, & GAY MYERS
ABSTRACT—The work of Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) is put into context by a study of contemporaneous references that pertain specifically to the appearance and presentation of Bierstadt's paintings, including hanging practice, lighting, and framing. Documentary evidence is used to gain a better understanding of Bierstadt's techniques. The authors' observations, after having treated a number of paintings by Bierstadt and his contemporaries and near-contemporaries, such as Thomas Cole (1801–48) and Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), are also included. This discussion in turn sheds light on the criticism of Bierstadt's methods that the artist suffered during his lifetime, as well as on the special problems of preservation of certain of Bierstadt's paintings.
TITRE—Bierstadt et autres peintres américains du XIXe siècle: une remise en contexte. RÉSUMÉ—L'œuvre d'Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) est mise en contexte au moyen d'une étude de références contemporaines à l'artiste qui traitent spécifiquement de l'apparence et de la présentation de ses tableaux, en particulier des pratiques pour l'accrochage, l'éclairage et l'encadrement. Les documents d'époque sont utilisés pour aider à mieux comprendre les techniques employées par Bierstadt. Les auteurs notent aussi leurs propres observations, obtenues lors du traitement de plusieurs tableaux de Bierstadt et de ses contemporains ou quasi-contemporains, tels que Thomas Cole (1801–1848) et Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900). Cette discussion apporte quelques éclaircissements quant aux critiques relatives aux méthodes de Bierstadt dont l'artiste fut l'objet au cours de sa carrière, ainsi que sur les problèmes spécifiques de préservation de certains de ses tableaux.
TITULO—Bierstadt y otros pintores norteamericanos del siglo XIX en contexto. RESUMEN—El trabajo de Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) es puesto en contexto a través de un estudio de referencias contemporáneas que conciernen específicamente a la apariencia y presentación de las pinturas de Bierstadt, incluyendo las prácticas de colgado, iluminación y enmarcado. Se utiliza evidencia documental para lograr un mejor entendimiento de las técnicas de Bierstadt. También se incluyen las observaciones del autor después de haber tratado varias de pinturas de Bierstadt y sus contemporáneos o contemporáneos cercanos, como Thomas Cole (1801–1848) y Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900). A su vez, esta discusión arroja luz sobre la crítica a los métodos de Bierstadt que el artista sufrió durante su vida, así como también sobre los problemas especiales de preservación de algunas de sus pinturas.
This article was originally prepared to complement the more technical papers at the symposium held at the National Gallery of Art in 1992 in conjunction with the exhibition Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise. The catalog of that exhibition—which emphasizes the changing views of critics—inspired the authors to look for documents of the period relating to the technique; appearance, and settings of paintings by Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) and other American painters and to analyze these comments from a technical point of view. This kind of inquiry seems especially appropriate with Bierstadt because many of his critics focused on his technique and because special settings were so much a part of the way that the public experienced the large paintings of artists like Bierstadt and Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900). The authors have also drawn upon their experience in treating many 19th-century American paintings to try to understand connections between technique and appearance as well as between technique and conservation problems.
The lighting and hanging of paintings are inextricably connected. For instance, in a traditional gallery with skylights in the ceiling, the amount of light falling on a painting might vary greatly from one section of wall to another or change according to the weather and the time of day. Artificial lighting, which developed in the 19th century, is more controllable but the color of the light can also make a painting appear different from the way it looks in daylight. The angle at which light strikes a painting is also important. A painting hung too high may reflect light from skylights or ceiling-mounted artificial lights toward the viewer, making it difficult to see the image. Poor lighting and direct reflections would have been especially noticeable on the large, dark, varnished paintings from the middle of the 19th century.
The American critic and collector Jarves ( 1960, 268) wrote, “Until recently…pictures were generally hung without regard even to light, so as to conform to the symmetry of the room.” Some artists working in the second half of the 19th century realized that their paintings looked different in different kinds of light. Sanford Gifford (1823–80) described in a letter to John Ferguson Weir that his painting of the Parthenon looked fine in good light but looked poor in dull light, so he took a great risk and repainted the entire sky, against Church's advice. Gifford (1880, 174) wrote that “now it looks better in a fine light, and will not suffer so much in a bad one.” Other artists tried to disregard the limitations of lighting. It was said of the paintings of William Page (who shared a studio with Bierstadt in 1870): “Pictures painted in so low a key, when hung upon the walls of our badly-lighted houses, can scarcely be seen; but [Page] has always held that they should not be falsely painted because houses are badly lighted” (Sheldon 1881, 225). Few artists reacted as strongly to bad lighting as an exhibitor at the National Academy of Design in 1860: “Last year Elliot one day took out his knife and cut one of his pictures out of its frame on the wall, being justly indignant at its having been stuck up in bad light, several feet above the line of true vision” (Cosmopolitan Art Journal 1861, 36).
The lighting of Bierstadt's large western scenes presented some special problems. In 1860, when his Base of the Rocky Mountains, Laramie Peak (1860, unlocated) was shown at the Tenth Street Studio Building, a reviewer observed that the lighting was poor (New York Tribune, March 27, 1860, quoted in Anderson and Ferber 1990). In 1864, when The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863, Metropolitan Museum of Art) was first shown, a critic described his experience of looking at the painting “under all circumstances of external light, in dark and bright weather, in good and bad positions” (quoted in Hendricks 1974, 147). By the latter part of the 1860s, when he exhibited The Domes of the Yosemite (1867, St. Johnsbury Atheneum), Bierstadt seems to have left less to the whims of weather or chance. The lighting was described as very carefully controlled, and the point of view of the spectators was controlled as well by the construction of raised galleries (New York Post, May 7, 1867, quoted in Anderson and Ferber 1990). Bierstadt's large pictures apparently generated a great deal of thought and comments about proper viewing distance and height, which may have helped to stimulate the re-evaluation of hanging practices that occurred a little later in the 19th century.
Better control of lighting was possible because by the third quarter of the 19th century gas illumination was practical and widespread; period photographs of Bierstadt's studio at his home, Malkasten, show gas fixtures, and it is known that Bierstadt sometimes painted at night by gaslight. The exhibition space at the Tenth Street Studio Building also had what was described as brilliant gaslight (Weiss 1987). It was reported in 1864 that the paintings on exhibit at the Metropolitan Fair for the U.S. Sanitary Commision were illuminated by 490 gas jets (Hendricks 1974). Gaslight made evening exhibitions possible and, as Flexner (1970) has pointed out, allowed the new class of businessmen, who were becoming the new patrons of art, to come with their families to view paintings after a day of work.
The difference between daylight and gaslight was noticed at the time; in one case a viewer thought that Bierstadt's painting Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie (1866, Brooklyn Museum) looked better by gaslight but was told by the artist that the painting looked better by daylight (Anderson and Ferber 1990).
2.2 HANGING PRACTICE
When Bierstadt began exhibiting his works, paintings were hung close together, often right up to the ceiling. This taste favored the overall decorative effect of a room at the expense of the individual work of art, and it allowed exhibitions to present more paintings for viewing and potential sale. But critics and artists were begining to rebel against galleries and private owners hanging pictures so high that, as Philip Hamerton (1876, 134–35) wrote, “note a creature except the flies can even hope to behold them.” Hamerton, a British writer whose books were published and widely distributed in America, made the poor hanging of paintings a béte noire. He wrote: “If a lad were to study Latin, and his tutor were to say to him, 'You shall not hold your book where you can read it, but it shall be placed at such a distance from you as to be illegible,' what would you think of that tutor? Would you not say that he was crazy? Well, but picture-hangers constantly do that” (Hamerton 1876, 142). Or again: “When you go to a painter's studio and ask him to show you a picture, he does not run upstairs with it and hang it out at the window of the third storey and tell you to go out into the street and look up at it. No; he puts it on an easel, level with your eye, wheels the easel into the best light; and you really see the work. Now in a rationally contrived gallery you ought to be able to see every picture just as easily and comfortably as that” (Hamerton 1876, 243).
The 19th-century practice of hanging paintings with their tops leaning out away from the wall was made necessary in part because paintings were hung so high. This technique also helped to prevent glare by changing the angle at which light from above reflected off the surface of a painting. Today, most museums do not follow this practice, and they often have problems lighting tall, dark paintings without glare at the top. But the appearance of a painting could suffer if it were tilted so far forward that very little light fell on it. Thomas Cole once had to explain to his patron Daniel Wadsworth that some of the paintings that Wadsworth had lent to an exhibition at the National Academy of Design looked bad for this reason; the problem had to be corrected part way through the exhibition (McNulty 1983).
The spacing of paintings remained surprisingly tight, even in some of the new “reformed” schemes for hanging pictures. Clement and Hutton (1885, xiv) said of the new Grosvenor Gallery, which opened in 1877, “The pictures are not placed closely together, as is of necessity the rule in ordinary galleries, but a space of at least one foot is allowed on every side of each work.”
Picture frames were an important part of the presentation of paintings; Bierstadt's paintings were sometimes framed in gold-leafed frames and sometimes in dark-stained wood frames, as is shown in photographs of The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak at the 1864 Sanitary Commission Fair in New York. A dark wood frame may have made Bierstadt's landscapes appear even brighter by comparison and may have enhanced the illusionistic “window” effect, especially when the paintings were dramatically lit. But Hamerton (1876, 370), writing in 1871, specifically disliked the massive dark wood frames in which Bierstadt's paintings were shown when they were exhibited in England: “As a cornice for some room, richly furnished in carved wood, they would have been very noble and appropriate; as picture-frames, they had the radical vice of not showing the picture to advantage…. Gold adds to the splendour of a work of art more than any other surrounding.”
The contrast between a wood frame and the splendor of a gold frame is clearer when one sees a 19th-century gilt frame that has been protected from grime in a glazed shadow-box since it was made. Several such pristine examples of gilt frames from Bierstadt's period can be found at the Ellen Battell Stoeckel Estate, Norfolk, Connecticut. Twentieth-century eyes have become so accustomed to worn, dirty, and deliberately patinated frames that gilt frames as 19th-century artists saw them might look gaudy to us now. But seeing the brilliant reflections from a perfectly preserved frame makes it possible to understand Thomas Cole's (1801–48) comment that the frame he had selected for a painting would actually help to light it (McNulty 1983). It also explains Thomas Sully's remark that Washington Allston (1779–1843) preferred the look of an old frame to the “glaring glitter” of a new one (Sully  1965, 31). Early photographs show something of the brilliant effect that a wall hung with paintings in new, shiny gold frames would have made (fig. 1).
Stereograph of a gallery of paintings, American, third quarter of the 19th century. Courtesy of William Schaefer Photographs and Fine Art, Chester, Connecticut
A practice that conservators have occasionally noticed, and that can be documented in written sources as well, is some artists' preference for finishing a painting after putting it into a frame (Burnet 1850; Hamerton 1876). We do not know that Bierstadt did this, but many artists are said to have kept frames in their studios in order to complete their paintings. M. F. H. De Haas, for instance, was said to have put each picture into a frame when it was about half-done (Sheldon 1881).
3 BIERSTADT'S TECHNIQUE
An 1859 stereograph view of Albert Bierstadt and his New Bedford patrons (fig. 2) gives several clues about Bierstadt's working methods. The painting Thunderstorm in the Rocky Mountains (1859, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston) is on the easel. An examination of the original stereograph (William Schaefer Photographs and Fine Art, Chester, Connecticut) shows that the painting is not very far along. The branches on the left are just single strokes; they will eventually become much more twisted and complex. The artist has begun the area of water at the lower right with a series of strokes, and he has not yet begun painting the deer on the right. It is tempting to try to decipher the small square shapes resembling pieces of paper, which are leaning against the painting. A historian of photography who was shown this image suggested that the smaller objects could each be one half of a stereograph card, because stereograph images have a square format (Hendrickson 1992). Bierstadt and his two brothers were photographers who produced stereographs. Another possibility is that the small squares are studies on paper, perhaps like the tiny, nearly square (3 1/4 in. by 3 3/4 in., 8 × 8 cm) oil sketch on paper by Bierstadt, Mountain Landscape with Sunset (1870s, Lyman Allyn Art Museum). This small painting has the appearance of a true sketch that was painted very quickly, all at once, wet-into-wet.
Bierstadt Brothers, stereograph of Albert Bierstadt painting. Courtesy of William Schaefer Photographs and Fine Art, Chester, Connecticut
Bierstadt produced a variety of different kinds of studies. Italian Costume Studies(fig. 3), dating from his first trip to Italy in 1857, is a very straightforward study in which the artist set down details of costumes that he later incorporated into larger paintings. It is done in oil on paper, but unlike some other studies, where most of the sheet is covered with paint, here much of the blue paper is still visible. A close examination shows that when beginning this study Bierstadt put down very thin layers of paint, as on the neck of the container, and then used the texture of the paper to give liveliness to following strokes, as can be seen in the broken stroke at the top of the container and in several “practice” strokes along the edge of the design.
Albert Bierstadt, Italian Costume Studies, 1857, oil on paper, 29.6 × 47 cm (11 11/16 × 18 1/2 in.) Lyman Allyn Art Museum, acc. no. 1948.9
In the case of Italian Costume Studies, Bierstadt applied a natural resin varnish layer locally in order to saturate or “wet up” the design. The varnish can be seen as a faint line of discoloration around the figures and as uneven gloss in reflected light. It is likely that after Bierstadt painted the image it was too matte, or “sunken in,” and he needed to varnish the design in order to see the details in the darks. Another case of this technique can be seen in the study Ox (undated, Oakland Museum, Kahn Collection), where an outline of varnish can also be seen. Bierstadt must have varnished the study of the ox before it was quite dry, because one can clearly see where the pigment was picked up and has bled into the varnish layer, especially around the head of the animal. Even watercolor artists sometimes felt this need to add a coating to better saturate works of art on paper. For example, a water-color and gouache painting by Bierstadt's predecessor in the West, Alfred Jacob Miller (1810–74), Trappers Making their Escape from Hostile Blackfeet (undated, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University), shows that the artist applied a glossy gum coating locally in the darker areas so that he could have a greater range of values in the darks.
On some of Bierstadt's studies the paper was prepared with a thin white oil ground before painting. This is true of a highly finished study of South Dome, Yosemite Valley (Richard Manoogian Collection), which is inscribed in the artist's hand on the back, “May 1867,” along with the name of the artist's wife, Rosalie O. Bierstadt. Albert Bierstadt was probably not actually in Yosemite in the spring of 1867. If the inscription marks the date that the painting was given to his wife, the painting could be a very detailed study made earlier on-site, as opposed to a studio production made after the artist returned to New York. But compared to many other studies, it is much more finished; every part of the paper is covered with paint, and it can be seen as an independent completed painting on its own. The very careful application of paint is more similar to the handling of paint that Bierstadt used in his larger finished paintings than to some of his quicker, sketchier studies.
The large number of preparatory sketches and studies that Bierstadt made became a topic of discussion during the artist's lifetime. It was reported that 50 studies were made for his 1858 painting Lake Lucerne, now in the National Gallery of Art (Home Journal, April 3, 1858, quoted in Anderson and Ferber 1990). Six years later, The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak was criticized by American pre-Raphaelites who thought that “twenty times the study that the artist has given to this picture,—study represented by actual sketches, built upon a previous ten years…would not have justified him in attempting to fill so large a canvas” (New Path, April 1864, 161, quoted in Anderson and Ferber 1990, 194). By 1870, perhaps in response to this criticism, a kind of “sketch escalation” can be seen, and publicity around The Emerald Pool (1870, Chrysler Museum) claimed that 200 studies were made for it (Hendricks 1974).
3.2 FINISHED PAINTINGS
It is interesting to examine closely the surfaces of some of Bierstadt's completed paintings, because many of his strongest critics disliked his painting methods and associated them with techniques taught in Düsseldorf, where Bierstadt had studied. As the Düsseldorf style, which had been much admired in New York around mid-century, fell in esteem during the following decades, both Bierstadt and the Düsseldorf school were criticized for “conventional lifelessness” and “hardness” (Jarves  1960, quoted in Hendricks 1974, 144; The Albion, 11 May 1867, quoted in Hendricks 1974, 164, n. 29). Bierstadt's straightforward method of applying paint can be seen in many of his paintings. For example, in The Matterhorn (undated, private collection, on loan to the Lyman Allyn Art Museum), most of the painting was done wet-into-wet. Although the brush strokes accurately describe the subject, the strokes are rather repetitive and would not be called beautiful or interesting in their own right. In some passages, especially in the sunlit mountainside, the paint appears to have been quite viscous and sticky, forming small, stiff peaks as it came off of the artist's brush. Parts of the rocky foreground in the lower left were clearly painted in several layers over paint that was already dry, and there is some traction crackle in the nearby dark evergreen trees.
Many of Bierstadt's paintings that are painted without excess medium or unusual added media are also in very good condition. However, his technique varies enough that this is not always the case. For instance, some of the earliest paintings done in Europe, such as A Rustic Mill (1855, private collection), show severe wrinkling, probably from excess oil in the paint. A few of Bierstadt's paintings from the 1860s also have traction crackle, such as In the Mountains (1867, Wadsworth Atheneum), which shows traction crackle over most of the surface of the painting (fig. 4).
Albert Bierstadt, In the Mountains (detail), 1867, oil on canvas, 89.4 cm × 127.6 cm (36 3/16 × 50 1/4 in.) Wadsworth Atheneum, acc. no. 1923.253
In the Yosemite Valley (1866, Wadsworth Atheneum), demonstrates Bierstadt's typical technique for his medium-sized paintings. The technique is for the most part simple, using opaque paint, with few brush strokes that have a life of their own. Critics at the time sometimes called his paint application “hard” or “dry” (Watson's Weekly Art Journal, May 20, 1865, quoted in Hendricks 1974, 158, n. 20). One wonders whether some critics may have associated the lack of liveliness or personal expression in Bierstadt's paint application with a lack of feeling in the painter. Even in the painting of the trees, the brushwork is very simple. It shows paint application that would seem old-fashioned, as more painterly tricks of impasto with glazes dragged over them came into fashion with the rise in popularity of the Barbizon School. By the 1860s, George Inness (1812–94) was being praised for his “rugged handling” and “great sprawling marks of the brush” and, significantly, for his depth of feeling as well (Burke and Voorsanger 1987, 82). In the Yosemite Valley also shows one of Bierstadt's mannerisms. He uses a very thin layer of paint, having some opacity to it and tending toward brownish, to represent the surface of a body of water.
A study of the surfaces of Bierstadt's paintings illustrates Baigell's contention (1981) that it was probably not just the amount of detail in Bierstadt's paintings that some critics did not like—other artists painted with as much detail—but it was also the fact that Bierstadt's surfaces are not variegated and that large areas of his paintings are relatively uniformly painted. In his larger paintings, unlike his small studies on paper, Bierstadt rarely dragged his paint over the texture of the support to enliven or vary the application of his paint. Similarly, in his larger paintings, he seldom glazed over texture that he had made beforehand with thick layers of impasto or painted with colors that were thin enough to show the marks of his brush.
It may have hurt Bierstadt in the eyes of the critics that his technique not only was simple and methodical but looks simple and methodical as well. The average viewer could be baffled by how the built-up texture and glazing of some other artists was done but could well imagine how Bierstadt's work was done, stroke by stroke.
On the other hand, when some critics said they disliked the way that Bierstadt put on paint, they appear to have been criticizing his manner of representation—they were saying that he was not good enough at putting paint on canvas to make a successful illusion of the object represented. For instance, in 1863 a critic said of The Mountain Brook (1863, Collection of Gil Michaels): “Again, the sense of paint is too strong…. The large boulder in the centre is not stone-like in texture, but rather like a huge mass of gray paint” (New York Leader, April 18, 1863, quoted in Anderson and Ferber 1990, 193). Similarly, it was written in the American pre-Raphaelite journal New Path that Bierstadt's The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak would have been better “if the marks of the brush had, by dexterous handling, been made to stand for scrap and fissure, crag and cranny, but as it is, we have only too little geology and too much bristle” (quoted in Ferber and Gerdts 1985, 31).
3.3 PREDECESSORS AND CONTEMPORARIES
To understand the context of the criticism of Bierstadt's technique, it is instructive to examine the methods of paint application used by some of the artist's predecessors and contemporaries. In a small painting on panel by Thomas Cole, Storm Near Mount Washington (ca. 1825–30, Ellen Battell Stoeckel Estate), the handling of paint can be seen to be radically different from Bierstadt's. Cole loved to swirl the paint around while it was still wet. His paint is more transparent than Bierstadt's, so the brush strokes are more easily traceable; they show the process and movement of the brush.
The same qualities of paint handling are seen in a medium-sized painting by Cole, Mount Aetna from Taormina (1844, Lyman Allyn Art Museum), as well as in his larger, slightly earlier version (1843) at the Wadsworth Atheneum, which at 10 ft. wide is as large as some of Bierstadt's great pictures. Cole's larger Mount Aetna was painted very quickly, with a fairly big brush, and the thinly applied paint allows the warm underlayers to show through. There are many wet-into-wet strokes that Cole has blended on the canvas or partly mixed on his palette so that they come off the brush as distinct swirls of color. Cole painted this large painting in only five days (Parry 1988)—a far cry from Bierstadt, who worked for months on his large paintings.
There is also a technical difference between the study of Storm Near Mount Washington by Cole and any Bierstadt study that the authors have seen. Solubility tests and ultraviolet fluorescence indicate that Cole mixed a large amount of varnish with the dark areas of paint, possibly to get even more transparency than he could get with pure oil paint. Cole may have added varnish to his paint for reasons of speed and convenience as well, so the painting would dry quickly and he could see the result immediately without having to varnish the painting and risk disturbing the paint, as Bierstadt did when he varnished his Ox too soon.
A small study from 1850 by Church, New England Scenery (Lyman Allyn Art Museum) shows many similarities with Cole: the paint is also applied thinly over a pinkish underlayer, and the paint was moved around when it was wet with a kind of brush-stroking that is reminiscent of Cole's work. Church's larger 1851 painting, New England Scenery (George Walter Vincent Smith Art Museum), is similar to the study, except for some rearranged elements, but the paint application is tighter in style. The distinction in paint handling between small studies and large finished pictures blurs with Church (and perhaps to some degree with other landscape painters as well), since Church did a number of small, very detailed paintings. A letter from Church gives a potential customer a price list and asks what size he can afford and which kinds of subjects he likes, the implication being that the picture will be painted to order in the size wanted (Church 1854).
3.4 SPECIAL TECHNICAL PROBLEMS
Bierstadt's The Burning Ship (Shelburne Museum), probably painted in 1871 (fig. 5), has more complicated problems than most of the other Bierstadt paintings that we have treated. It is painted in extremely thin layers, and in some places increased transparency of the paint may allow some of the underlayers to be more visible than they once were. A more precise interpretation is complicated by the fact that the painting had been overcleaned in some places, and in other places residues of old varnish remain.
Albert Bierstadt, The Burning Ship, oil on canvas, 76 × 127 cm (29 15/16 × 50 in.) Shelburne Museum, acc. no. 27.1.4–64
Solvent tests indicated that parts of the sky could be easily undercut by solvents, suggesting that an artist-applied retouch varnish was present. It makes sense that a retouch varnish would have been used on such a dark, subtle picture, because it would be extremely difficult for the artist to see what he was doing during the course of painting if the dark paint became “sunken in” and matte as it dried.
The sky was further complicated by some thin, oil-resin layers around the moon that may have been put on by the artist. They had become browner with time and had been partly removed in a previous cleaning. These effects are extremely subtle, and the painting actually looks quite good in normal light. But the effect that is visible around the moon is similar to problems that have developed on paintings by other artists, where thin, subtle modifications of lighter colors, done in medium-rich paint, become brown as the medium darkens over time. A striking example is a painting of Niagara Falls by John Ferguson Weir (1841–1926) (undated, Yale University Art Gallery), where the thinnest modifications of the white mist at the foot of the falls have turned irreversibly brown because there was too much medium in the layer.
Artists at the time knew that some of their paint additives could have bad effects—that they might turn dark, or might lead to a painting being damaged when it was cleaned—but many artists continued to use them. The authors came across an interesting case of an extremely soluble glaze, of a kind that rarely survives, on a painting from 1853 by Junius Brutus Stearns (1810–85), Still Life with Trout and Fishing Tackle (Toledo Museum of Art). The artist had rubbed a very thin, dark brown layer into the texture of the paint in order to define some of the shadows, and then partially wiped it off. Lint, probably from a rag that the artist used to wipe off the glaze, is still visible in a few places. The dark glaze is under an old varnish layer; it is extremely sensitive to even mild solvents and has all the characteristics of bitumen-containing paint. The authors had treated another painting by Stearns that had been damaged during a previous cleaning, possibly by the removal of a similar layer. Fortunately, Still Life with Trout and Fishing Tackle escaped damage when someone in the past began cleaning in a corner but thought better of it and stopped.
The word “glazing” might have meant different things to different artists in the 19th century. Church's Hooker and Company Journeying through the Wilderness from Plymouth to Hartford (1846, Wadsworth Atheneum) is mentioned by the artist in a letter in 1846. He writes that “some of the gentlemen connected with the Wadsworth Gallery are trying to purchase my Hooker picture. This I have improved by glazing, etc.” (National Collection of Fine Arts 1966, 82). Church might have meant framing the painting behind glass. On the other hand, if he meant “glazing” in the sense of applying layers of transparent paint, it is interesting that the painting now looks very straightforward and solidly painted. One wonders whether the term could have meant simply putting on deeper shadows, using a medium of drying oil rather than a special medium containing resin or other additives.
In looking at landscape paintings by Bierstadt and his contemporaries, we have not seen any actual evidence of the overall glazing or toning with bitumen or other slightly tinted layers that is mentioned in painting manuals by Thomas Sully ( 1965) and John Burnet (1850). Burnet cites Joshua Reynolds's opinion that Apelles's atramentum is a description of glazing. Jarves (1869), too, mentioned that something like the atramentum of Apelles was used by painters of his own time for lowering the pitch of their paintings. An ambiguous reference says that Gifford “varnished the finished picture so many times with boiled oil, or some other semi-transparent or translucent substance, that a veil is made between the canvas and the spectator's eye,” but the passage goes on in a confused way, and it is not really clear whether the layer referred to was tined (Sheldon 1881, 18–19).
Hartwell (1999) discusses some of the special problems of Bierstadt's later paintings. In our work we have also noticed unusual construction and materials in Bierstadt's late paintings. When we treated Indian Sunset, Deer by a Lake, probably from the 1880s (Yale University Art Gallery), we found that the paint was in some places more transparent and glazelike than any paint we had seen in his earlier work. The paint layers were very sensitive to solvents, a fact that may be related to the painting's dark, graphite-containing ground, which was itself extremely sensitive to solvents. The painting is still mounted on its original spring-cornered paneled stretcher, patented in 1875 by Wright and Gardner. Other painters were also apparently interested in the manufacturer's claims for this kind of stretcher. A painting by A. H. Wyant (1836–92), Landscape with Cows (ca. 1875–80, Ellen Battell Stoeckel Estate) is stretched on a Wright and Gardner spring-cornered, paneled stretcher with exactly the same label as the Bierstadt Indian Sunset, Deer by a Lake. The authors have also seen an even earlier version of a spring-cornered stretcher, sold in New Haven and patented by Todd in 1866, on a portrait by an unknown painter of Le Grand Lockwood (undated, Lockwood-Mathews Mansion), who was, coincidentally, the first owner of Bierstadt's Domes of the Yosemite.
Innovations like spring stretchers show that some artists were willing to use new technology to help to preserve their paintings. In the 1840s the cleaning of paintings at the National Gallery in London and Charles Eastlake's important book Materials for a History of Oil Painting (1847) had raised consciousness about conservation and the importance of good technique. By mid-century many artists and art lovers were aware that paintings by artists of previous generations had not always lasted well. Jarves, for instance, wrote of Washington Allston's paintings that “like most colorists by temperament he experimented to a degree that has proved injurious to the permanent transparency and brilliancy of most of his pictures. Their subtler qualities are now gone forever” (Jarves  1960, 173). Of William Page it was said that “some of Mr. Page's pictures, too, have lost color, or begun to peel, the reason being that he has been fond of making all sorts of experiments in the mixing of pigments” (Sheldon 1881, 223).
The techniques used by George Inness were a sign that a strain of poor craftsmanship would continue well into the future of American landscape painting. George Inness Jr.'s description of his father's working methods, which were based in part on French Barbizon practice, sounds like a conservator's nightmare. Inness used large amounts of driers, a great deal of medium, and many layers of glazes (Inness 1917). He wrote that his father was one day visited by a student from the Art Students League, who watched the painter as he squeezed a lot of raw umber on his palette, picked up the largest brush he could find, and with the aid of a medium that looked like Spaulding's glue he went at the canvas as though he were scrubbing the floor, smearing it over, sky and all, with a thin coat of brown. The young man looked aghast, and when Pop was through said: “But, Mr. Inness, do you mean to tell me that you resort to such methods as glazing to paint your pictures?” Father rushed up to the young man, and, glowering at him over his glasses, as he held the big brush just under his visitor's nose, exclaimed: “Young man, have you come here from the Art Students League to tell me how to paint? Then go back there and tell them I'd paint with mud if it would give me the effect I wanted” (Inness 1917, 254–55).
One could not ask for a greater contrast to Bierstadt's generally careful methods and sound techniques.
When standing in front of one of Bierstadt's paintings, conservators should perhaps celebrate, above all, Bierstadt's good craftsmanship, which makes it possible to still see, in most cases, the effects that the artist wanted the viewer to see. One cannot stand in front of one of Bierstadt's large paintings without being impressed by another element of his technique—his audacity in painting something so big, and with so much detail, that no one had quite done it in that way before. Audacity in the arts can be seen as another part of the context in which Bierstadt was painting. Moby Dick came out in 1851, and after Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, Matthew Arnold criticized Walt Whitman for thinking that he was a big man because he lived in a big country, which perhaps could have been said about Bierstadt as well. This kind of audacity seems not only typically American, but an element of the technique of some of the best and most distinctive things that have been done in the arts in America.
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LANCE MAYER and GAY MYERS are both graduates of the conservation training program at the Intermuseum Laboratory in Oberlin, Ohio. Since 1981, they have been in New London, Connecticut, where they spend the majority of their time working as independent conservators for many large and small museums as well as private collectors. For a number of years they have carried out research and published on painting materials and methods, and were recently awarded a Winterthur Fellowship to study 19th-century American painters' techniques. Authors' address: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London, CT 06320