Alfred Bierstadt (American, born Germany, 1830-1902),
Dawn at Donner Lake
, ca. 1871-1873
oil on paper mounted on canvas, 21 1/4 x 29 in.; 53.98 x 73.66 cm
Gift of Mrs. C.N. Dietz, 1934.13
Bierstadt was instrumental in shaping the post-Civil War generation's perceptions of the American West. His paintings' meticulous details and sublime panoramas convinced Americans and Europeans alike that the Far West was still a rugged, primordial world of unaltered pristine beauty, and his worked beckoned Americans to the new land of opportunity.
When Bierstadt was two years old, his family moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts, from their rural home near Düsseldorf, Germany. After teaching himself the rudiments of painting, he returned to Düsseldorf in 1853, where he studied in the studios of Andreas Achenbach and Karl Friedrich Lessing, both associated with the Düsseldorf Academy. These masters stressed precise, detailed drawing, high-keyed colors, and large, carefully balanced compositions, which reflected the romanticism of the German philosophers. Because of his training in Düsseldorf, Bierstadt's style differed from that of the first generation of American landscapists, such as Thomas Cole, who for the most part followed the looser, more atmospheric British style. In 1856 Bierstadt left Düsseldorf and traveled through the Alps and then south to Florence and Rome, where he painted for a year among the city's large contingent of Americans. Upon his return to Massachusetts in the autumn of 1857, he successfully established himself as an artist of romantic Alpine scenes.
Dawn at Donner Lake dates from Bierstadt's third trip west, when he painted mainly in northern California in the Sierra Nevadas from the summer of 1871 to the fall of 1873. Shortly after his arrival there, he was commissioned by Collis P. Huntington, the railroad magnate, to paint a scene of Donner Lake from its highest vantage point along the route of Huntinton's Central Pacific Railroad. Dawn at Donner Lake is most likely one of the views painted in preparation for the later, more expansive panorama. In this work, rocky outcroppings dominate the foreground, with the lake seen in the distance through a veil of morning haze. The discontinuous space from the fore- to background is a further indication of the influence of stereoscopic photography on Bierstadt's compositions.