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Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast

Photo: Howard Giske

Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast

1870

Albert Bierstadt

Born Solingen, Prussia, 1830; died New York City, New York, 1902

It is, we are told, in all essential features, a portrait of the place depicted, and we need the assurance to satisfy us that it is not a superb vision of that dreamland into which our much admired painter has made at least as many visits as he has made among the material wonders of the West.

On Bierstadt's painting of Puget Sound, from "On the Easel; Return of the Artists to their Studios," New York Evening Mail, October 24, 1870

Albert Bierstadt was a great adventurer and made many trips to the United States' western frontier regions, which is why one enthusiastic New York reviewer believed this painting represented the artist's faithful "portrait of a place." But Bierstadt had likely not yet traveled to the Washington Territory in 1870. The painting was possibly a commission from a New York shipping magnate who had made his enormous fortune on the Pacific coast. Enterprising artist that he was, Bierstadt did not shy away from the challenge of painting a place he had not yet seen.

Oil on canvas
52 1/2 x 82 in. (133.4 x 208.3 cm)
Framed: 71 1/2 × 101 1/2 × 7 in. (181.6 × 257.8 × 17.8 cm)
Gift of the Friends of American Art at the Seattle Art Museum, with additional funds from General Acquisition Fund
2000.70
Provenance: Abiel Abbot Low (1812-1893), Brooklyn, New York, by March 1872; bequeathed to either his son Abbot Augustus Low (1844-1912), New York, or his son Seth Low (1850-1916), New York, 1893; [Emmanuel David (died 1949), David Gallery, New York, before June 1916-1949]; bequeathed to his nephew, Philip R. Herzig, New York, 1949-2000
Photo: Howard Giske
location
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

Bierstadt Promotes Puget Sound

No American painter of the nineteenth century was as skilled a marketer of his paintings and his artistic persona as Albert Bierstadt. He regularly built interest in new works among members of the art press and potential buyers by teasing them—allowing them, for example, to see the sketches that might become large, finished pictures—or by inviting them to see works in progress in his studio. No doubt it was part of his well-planned marketing effort that Bierstadt chose to work on this grand canvas, Puget Sound, not in his own studio, in his home some distance outside New York City, up the Hudson River, but in the Manhattan studio of an artist friend, in a place where Bierstadt's progress on the work could be easily seen by visitors.

It seems from accounts of the critics who saw the painting as it was unveiled that Bierstadt may have represented it as a true-to-life depiction of Puget Sound, a view based on his own experience there. Yet, in truth, he probably had not been to the region, since his documented travels in 1863 place him no farther north than the lower Columbia River in the Oregon Territory, on what had been a brief visit to the Pacific Northwest. It is also possible that viewers of the painting simply assumed that this artist, so well traveled on the western frontier, surely had seen the remote place that he painted.

Bierstadt must have known that a canvas so large and so dramatic as this one was sure to be noticed in any public exhibition, and he unveiled it publicly at the first opportunity: in December 1870, at the monthly exhibition and reception at the fashionable Union League Club in New York, long a noted venue for showings of new work by New York's leading artists. Bierstadt was a prominent member of the Union League Club and an admired friend of the monied and cultured men who were the club's members.

A Commission or a Lucky Sale?

The first documented owner of Bierstadt's Puget Sound was Abiel Abbot Low, who had the painting in his collection by 1872. Low was one of the wealthiest men in New York, an importer of tea and other products from China, owner of a line of clipper ships dispatched to the Far East and the West Coast of the United States and a noted collector of American art of the time. It is possible that this grandly scaled painting was a commission from Low, for it is hard to imagine that Bierstadt would have embarked on such an ambitious undertaking without some assurance of a sale. As a collector of contemporary painting, Low would almost certainly have relished owning a canvas by Bierstadt, especially if the subject represented a region of the country where he, Low, had business interests. Once the novelty of Bierstadt's western subjects wore off among East Coast viewers—and it did fairly rapidly, by the end of the 1860s—the principal enthusiasts for Bierstadt's canvases were investors who had financial interests in the western regions—California railroad magnates Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington, for instance, and other men of means and enterprise like Abiel Abbot Low.

Bierstadt did not shrink from the challenge of painting an area of the western United States that he likely had not seen—a landscape that he only imagined from his brief experience in the lower Columbia River region of the Oregon Territory, where he had been with Fitz Hugh Ludlow in 1863. Whatever the circumstances surrounding the sale of the canvas to Low—either it was a commission or a lucky match of picture to patron—the painting ultimately landed in the hands of a man who was connected to the Pacific Northwest by virtue of his shipping business, as few others in America could have been in the early 1870s.
Portrait of Abiel Abbot Low
With permission of the University Archives, Columbia University in the City of New York

Media

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116
Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, describes Bierstadt's painting of the Puget Sound
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62
Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, discusses the Hudson River School Painters
Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, on how Bierstadt came to paint Puget Sound
Patricia Junker, Former Ann M. Barwick Curator of American Art, Seattle Art Museum, shares impressions of landscapes in the East and West

Resources

Exhibition HistoryNew York, New York, Union League Club, [Monthly exhibition], December 1870.

Cleveland, Ohio, The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Inaugural Exhibition, June 6 - Sept. 20, 1916. Cat. no. 2 [as The Storm, lent by the David Gallery].

Cleveland, Ohio, The Cleveland Museum of Art, extended loan, after Sept. 20, 1916 - at least Aug. 1917 [as The Storm].

Brooklyn, New York, The Brooklyn Museum, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, Feb. 8 - May 6, 1991 (San Francisco, California, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, June 8 - Sept. 1, 1991; Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Nov. 3, 1991 - Feb. 17, 1992). Text by Nancy Anderson and Linda Ferber. Cat. no. 53, reproduced p. 214.

London, England, Tate Britain. American Sublime, Feb. 21 - May 19, 2002 (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, June 17 - Aug. 25, 2002; Minneapolis, Minnesota, Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Sept. 22 - Nov. 7, 2002). Text by Andrew Wilton and Tim Barringer. Cat. no. 94, reproduced p. 240.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum. The View From Here: The Pacific Northwest, 1870-1940, July 1, 2004-Mar. 27, 2005. No catalogue.

Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Beauty and Bounty: American Art in an Age of Exploration, June 30 - Sept. 11, 2011. No catalogue.

Williamstown, Massachusetts, Sterling and Francine Clark Art Insitute, special exhibition to acknowledge Seattle Seahawks/New England Patriots wager in Superbowl XLIX, Apr. 15 - July 20, 2015.
Published References[Townley, D. O'C.]. "On the Easel. Return of the Artists to their Studios. Our Notes of an Afternoon." The New York Evening Mail, October 24, 1870: p.1.

"Fine Arts; Union League Club Reception . . . ." New York Times, December 11, 1870: p. 3 [as Puget Sound, Oregon].

"Art Gossip in New York." Anglo-American Times (London), December 31, 1870: p. 12 [as Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast].

Townley, D.O'C. "Living American Artists." Scribner's Monthly 3, no. 5 (March, 1872): p. 608 [as Puget Sound owned by A.A. Low, Esq., of Brooklyn].

[Townley, D.O'C]. "Albert Bierstadt." San Francisco Daily Evening Bulletin, March 16, 1872 [reprint of Scribner's article, March 1872].

{possibly "Personal." Milwaukee Sentinel, January 12, 1871 ["Bierstadt is at work on a large painting of a scene on the Pacific Coast, near Vancouver's Island."].}

Hendricks, Gordon. Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., in association with the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, 1973; p. 230. reproduced fig. 143 [as The Storm, 1870].

Carr, Gerald L. "Albert Bierstadt. The Shore of the Turquoise Sea. In American Paintings from the Manoogian Collection, pp. 52, 54, n. 14. Exh cat. Washington, D.C.: National Gallery of Art, 1989.

Tu, Janet I. "Museum Acquires Long-Sought Painting." Seattle Times, August 3, 2000: pp. B1, B4, reproduced B1.

Raban, Jonathan. "Battleground of the Eye." Atlantic Monthly (March 2001): p. 44, reproduced.

Chong, Alan. "Collecting Pictures for Cleveland." In European and American Painting in the Cleveland Museum of Art, compiled by Alan Chong, p. xvi, reproduced fig. 4.Cleveland, Ohio: The Cleveland Museum of Art, 1993.

Raban, Jonathan. "Introduction." In The Pacific Northwest Landscape: A Painted History, edited by Kitty Harmon. Seattle: Sasquatch Books, 2001; pp. 13, 31, reproduced p. 30.

Raban, Jonathan. "Battleground of the Eye." In Here/There/Nowhere, pp. 6-8, reproduced p. 7. Portland, Oregon: Nobius Projects, 2007.

Seattle Art Museum: Bridging Cultures. London: Scala Publishers Ltd. for the Seattle Art Museum, 2007; p. 25, reproduced.

Junker, Patricia. "A Sense of Place: American Art and the Seattle Art Museum." The Magazine Antiques (November 2008): p. 113, reproduced fig. 1, p. 108.

Junker, Patricia. Albert Bierstadt, Puget Sound on the Pacific Coast: A Superb Vision of Dreamland, in association with Beauty and Bounty: American Art in the Age of Exploration. Seattle, Washington: Seattle Art Museum in association with University of Washington Press, 2011; pp. 10, 12-13, 22, 42 (detail), 44-45 (detail), 46, 50 (detail), 51 (detail), 54, 55, 56 (detail), 57, 64, reproduced figs. 3.1, 3.6, 3.8, 3.13, 3.15.

Land of Beauty and Bounty. Josephone Cheng, producer. KCTS Public Television, Seattle, 2011.

Clemsn, Gayle. "America the Beautiful on Canvas." The Seattle Times, Northwest Ticket supplement, July 1, 2011: p. 28.

Chasan, Daniel Jack. "A New SAM Show is a Foray into our Environmental History." Crosscut, July 11, 2011, crosscut.com.

Haertel, Laura. "'Proper Paintings' of the American Landscape." California Literary Review, July 21, 2011, calitreview.com.

Ybarra, Micahel. "Manifest Destiny in Art." Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2011: p. E10.

Caughill, Daniel. "How Should Christians Engage Art?" Deeply Rooted: Glorifying God in Womanhood Issue # 10, no. 2016: pp. 30-35, reproduced p. 33.

Sterrett, Jill. et al. Planning the Pacific Northwest. Chicago: American Planning Association, 2015; p. xxii, reproduced.

Snyder-Camp, Megan . "At the Experimental Forest." Common-place.org. 17, no. 2 (Winter 2017). http://common-place.org/book/at-the-experimental-forest/

"Albert Bierstadt, Island in the Lake," lot 46, Christie's, American Art, May 22, 2018, reproduced p. 102.

Seattle Art Museum acknowledges that we are on the traditional homelands of the Duwamish and the customary territories of the Suquamish and Muckleshoot Peoples. As a cultural and educational institution, we honor our ongoing connection to these communities past, present, and future. We also acknowledge the urban Native peoples from many Nations who call Seattle their home.

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