In 1877 Albert Bierstadt displayed this enormous composite of Sierra Nevada mountain views at a New York City exhibition with the generic title Mountain Lake. The following year, inspired in part by the Corcoran Gallery of Art's well-publicized purchase of his rival Frederic Edwin Church's Niagara, Bierstadt offered the work—rechristened Mount Corcoran—to the museum and its founder, William Wilson Corcoran. Staff and board members were deeply suspicious, but Bierstadt presented them with a War Department map showing the mountain's location. Curator William MacLeod opined that a government official had manually added Corcoran's name to the document, but it was revealed that the artist had, in fact, named a specific Sierra Nevada peak for the banker (albeit after he had offered him the canvas). Undeterred by the controversy surrounding the painting's acquisition, the artist stated: "I am happy to have named one of our highest mountains after him, the first to catch the morning sunlight [and] the last to say good night."
Bierstadt was the first artist to use his European training to translate field studies into expansive paintings celebrating western American grandeur. Evident everywhere in Mount Corcoran, from the glassy water to the snowy mountain peaks, are the artist's detailed naturalism and smooth surfaces. Following the discovery of gold in California, the American West became a source of intense fascination for East Coast art patrons and armchair travelers alike who were eager to see images of the vistas enthusiastically described by forty-niners, surveyors, and journalists. In 1859 Bierstadt joined US Army Colonel Frederick W. Lander's survey party to the Rocky Mountains. Four years later he set his sights on California's spectacular Yosemite Valley. When he returned to New York following that trip, Bierstadt began producing stunning landscapes such as Mount Corcoran that introduced eastern audiences to the natural wonders of the West.
More information on this painting can be found in the free PDF of Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945, available for download at https://www.nga.gov/content/dam/ngaweb/research/publications/pdfs/corcoran-american-art.pdf.
lower right, AB in monogram: ABierstadt
Collection of the artist, New York; purchased 1877 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; acquired 2014 by the National Gallery of Art.
- 52nd Annual Exhibition, National Academy of Design, New York, 1877, no. 452, as Mountain Lake.
- Loan to display with permanent collection, Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore, 1946-1947.
- De Gustibus: An Exhibition of American Paintings Illustrating a Century of Taste and Criticism, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1949, no. 21.
- Albert Bierstadt, A Retrospective Exhibition, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, August-September 1964, no. 65.
- Art of the American Frontier, IBM Gallery, New York, March-April 1964, no. 1.
- Past and Present: 250 Years of American Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1966, unpublished checklist.
- National Parks and the American Landscape, National Collection of Fine Arts, Washington, 1972, unnumbered catalogue.
- The American West: Selections from the Anschutz Collection and the Corcoran Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1981, no. 12.
- New Worlds From Old: Australian and American Landscape Painting of the Nineteenth Century, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford; Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 1998-1999, no. 81, repro.
- Encouraging American Genius: Master Paintings from the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Parrish Art Museum, Southampton; Mint Museum of Art, Charlotte; John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, 2005-2007, checklist no. 42.
- The American Evolution: A History through Art, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 2008, unpublished checklist.
- American Paintings from the Collection, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 6 June-18 October 2009, unpublished checklist.
- American Journeys: Visions of Place, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, 21 September 2013-28 September 2014, unpublished checklist.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1882: 57, no. 90.
- Macleod, William. Catalogue of the Paintings, Statuary, Casts, Bronzes, &c. of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1887: 59, no. 90.
- Corcoran Gallery of Art. Handbook of the American Paintings in the Collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Washington, 1947: 43.
- Strong, Lisa. "Albert Bierstadt, Mount Corcoran." In Corcoran Gallery of Art: American Paintings to 1945. Edited by Sarah Cash. Washington, 2011: 30, 105, 117, 140-141, 267-268, repro.
- Zambello, Francesca. "Creating the World of the Ring." Playbill for Richard Wagner: The Ring of the Nibelung (Washington National Opera, 2016). New York, 2016: 12, color repro.
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