Masterpiece Stories

Masterpiece Story: Sunlight and Shadow by Albert Bierstadt

Alexandra Kiely 9 January 2024 min Read

Sunlight and Shadow is a beautiful painting made by Albert Bierstadt in 1862. It shows a chapel at the Castle of Lowenburg, in Wilhelmshöhe, Germany. However, the real subject of the painting seems to be the beautiful effects of light and shade.

Sunlight and Shadow by Albert Bierstadt
Albert Bierstadt, Sunlight and Shadow, 1862, De Young Museum, San Francisco, CA, USA.

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) is well-known to art lovers as a Hudson River School painter who made large and dramatic scenes of America’s western frontier. However, Bierstadt was actually born in Germany. He moved to the United States when he was only two years old, but he returned to Europe at the age of twenty-three to study art. It was common in this time for ambitious American painters to study in Germany. While he was there, Albert Bierstadt made a beautiful oil sketch of the Lowenburg Chapel (see below).

Bierstadt Sunlight and Shadow: Study
Albert Bierstadt, Sunlight and Shadow: Study, 1855, The Newark Museum of Art, Newark, NJ, USA.

Several years after returning to America, Bierstadt used the sketch to make a full painting of Sunlight and Shadow. As you can see, he changed the composition a little bit from the sketch, but the two works are otherwise very close. In both cases, it seems that the beautiful light is the real subject of the piece, and the title definitely suggests that as well. The lovely Gothic chapel is a screen for the light to play off, and the tree is a filter to create all those beautiful shadows. Bierstadt was very, very good at painting light, and his famous landscapes of the American West are known for their gorgeous lighting effects. In this painting, the dappled sunlight on the church’s wall looks so warm and real that it’s easy to think you are looking out a window onto the real thing.

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