During the first week of the public conservation treatment of Albert Bierstadt’s A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie (1866), paintings conservators made a few discoveries about the artist’s working practice. The painting was examined closely using infrared reflectography (IRR), a technique commonly used to look for preparatory sketches or compositional changes that are often hidden beneath the top paint layers.
IRR revealed that Bierstadt made several changes to the painting as he worked, although the most dramatic areas of the mountain peaks and storm clouds remained consistent. For example, the pond in the lower right foreground was initially much shallower (see images above; normal light on top, IRR on bottom), and the deer hunt in the lower center was initially interrupted by a tree stump (see images below: normal light on top, IRR on bottom) – or perhaps the solitary stump was painted out so that the more exciting hunt scene could be added instead. Other minor changes to the shapes of specific rocks and trees are surprising given the scale of the artwork; even the smallest details were treated as important decisions.
Bierstadt created the composition primarily from sketches he made during an expedition to the Rocky Mountains, and Coloradan visitors to the ongoing conservation project have expressed how well he captured the vastness of the landscape. However, Bierstadt also would have augmented reality with a more idealized artistic vision, intending to lure his East Coast audience out west with a message of adventure and pristine natural beauty. Studying these IRR images gives more perspective on his choices as he crafted what was most viewers’ first experience of the American west.
The public conservation treatment of A Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mt. Rosalie continues in the 5th Floor Rotunda gallery through July 15. Stop from 2-5pm each day the museum is open to learn more!
Posted by Jessica Ford