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?     

(c) Fine Art Investigations, 2014
All Rights Reserved

[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

Patricia Moss is an art historian, or art detective if you will, who solves mysteries of 19th century American portraits. She located nearly 70 of Bingham’s lost portraits, a feat acknowledged by the Smithsonian’s Research and Scholar’s Center. From expertise with portraits of George Caleb Bingham (1811-1879), she developed skills that evolved into a comprehensive system based on the scientific method that conforms to the legal and ethical standards of art authentication. Moss 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. She is also the principal researcher for Fine Art Investigations.
This entry was posted in Art Detectives and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.