Albert Bierstadt and a British Physicist

When Fine Art Investigations celebrated the birth of Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) on January 7, we learned that the subject of one of  his few, if not only, extant portrait by Albert Bierstadt was of John Tyndall (1820-1893) .  Tyndall was a physicist and Darwinian proponent.  What does that fact say about Bierstadt?  The question begged to be  explored further. 

John Tyndahl Portrait by Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt, John Tyndall, c 1893
Watercolor with oil and varnish on paper
Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University , Cambridge, Massachusetts

I discovered a bit more from American Paintings at Harvard, Volume 2.[1]  There, the owners of the piece stated that Bierstadt painted the portrait in watercolor from an 1865 photograph. Using photographs was a common practice for Bierstadt, but the use of watercolor was not.  The portrait was probably painted “around the time of Tyndall’s death in 1893, when the photograph appeared in several American magazines.”[2]  Harvard researchers found no verifiable connection to the two men:. 

An eminent Victorian, Tyndall may have attended a dinner held in London in 1868 that Bierstadt threw in honor of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow; or perhaps the men met during Tyndall’s barnstorming lecture tour of the eastern U.S. in 1872. Tyndall donated the profits to science programs at several universities, including Harvard.  The portrait was purchased by Dr. Thomas Barbour of the Harvard Zoological Museum in 1839, apparently to commemorate Tyndall’s gift.

Tyndall was a proponent of science; Bierstadt, a painter of nature.  Though Bierstadt is well-known for creative license in his landscapes, in the details, he adhered to scientific accuracy. Bierstadt’s portrait of Tyndall suggests the artist admired physicist’s teachings.  What did the two men have in common.  We still don’t know.  A dissertation topic, anyone?     

Patricia Moss fineartinvestigations at gmail

[1]   Kevin Moore, “Albert Bierstadt, John Tyndall” in Theodore E.  Stebbbins,Virginia Anderson, American Paintings at Harvard, Volume 2, (Yale University Press, 2008) 48-49.   

[2] Ibid.



About Patricia Moss

I am an art historian, or art detective if you will, who specializes in 19th century American portraits. A snapshot preserves one moment in time while a portrait captures a life with all its complexities and contradictions. To help preserve the artistic and historic legacy in these portraits and to ensure portrait artists’ moral right to correct attribution, I developed a replicable procedure based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Customized technological tools help me work efficiently to quickly find the date of execution, the artists in the region at the time, and comparative chronological images. Each authentication is vetted with experts and, as needed, confirmed with scientific analysis. Institutions with which I have worked include University of Missouri Museum of Art and Archaeology; Ashby-Hodge Gallery of American Art, Central Methodist University, Fayette, Missouri; State Historical Society of Missouri; William Jewell College; Columbia-Pacific Heritage Museum. Artists I have identified include Jacob Eichholtz, William Edward West, George Esten Cooke, Samuel Bell Waugh, William Morrison Hughes, Edwin F. Goddard, Alban Jasper Conant, William James Hubard, and Chester Harding. My expertise began with George Caleb Bingham. Since 1999, I have located nearly 70 of 100 “lost” portraits. Staff at the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholars Center named me “The Bingham Lady.” In order to better distinguish Bingham’s artistry, I studied and examined the life and work of his students and colleagues. Descendants of two, William Morrison Hughes (1818-1892) and George Calder Eichbaum, assisted me by providing me with access to and images of their ancestors’ oeuvre. I served as a guest curator for the Bingham Bicentennial Exhibit, “Steamboats to Steam Engines: George Caleb Bingham’s Missouri: 1819-1879,” (March 10-September 8, 2011) at the Truman Presidential Museum and curated the opening exhibition, “George Caleb Bingham: Witness to History,” (September 2013 –), Jackson County Art Museum, Independence, Missouri.
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