It stands within reason that one would primarily associate Albert Bierstadt with his grandiose landscapes. For those unfamiliar with the work of this 19th century American painter, a simple Google will bring up his breathtaking views of the Rocky Mountain and the Sierra Nevada regions. Trained in Düsseldorf and later a member of the Hudson River School in New York, Bierstadt’s paintings are celebrated for representing the beauty of the natural landscape during the United States’ period of westward expansion. His lighting in these works would best be described as romantic, often characterized by a soft, tranquil glow commonly identified with Luminism. Seeing one of his large canvases in person is always a treat, my favorites being his Mount Corcoran at the Corcoran Gallery of Art and The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak at the Metropolitan Museum at Art. Even if you’re not partial to the landscapes, these works are bound to make some sort of impression.
With this context in mind, today's piece is very special to me. Produced toward the beginning of Bierstadt’s career, Roman Fish Market, Arch of Octavius is one of the artist's few known paintings not only to display human subjects so prominently but also feature them in an urban setting. Sure, his landscapes were usually inhabited by people, but more often than not those figures were dwarfed by the beautiful natural wonders on view, and sometimes they might not be found without a bit of searching throughout the foreground, for which having a magnifying glass wouldn't be a bad idea.
At any rate, in Roman Fish Market it's interesting to see Bierstadt’s eye applied to human observation, and for me it lends a new perspective on his landscapes in the same way that Johannes Vermeer's View of Delft or The Little Street provide an added appreciation for the Dutch master's window-lit interior scenes. Over time we become so accustomed to seeing our favorite artists represented by only their most popular works and the subject matter within that it's refreshing to see their talent utilized towards something even marginally different. Personally, I would love for Bierstadt to have painted more cityscapes, but I have a feeling the subject neither drove his passion or paid the bills. Oh well.
As for the actual scene in Roman Fish Market, Bierstadt presents us with a critical view of the locals’ regard for the rich history which surrounds them. For as many times as we’ve witnessed Bierstadt’s wondrous daybreak clouds of over the Rocky Mountains or his delicate rendering of a fawn at the side of a river, only in Roman Fish Market are we supplied his portrayal of sights such as a merchant selling fish on a discarded Corinthian column or a woman cradling her child in the street. That aside, the detail throughout this piece is quite beautiful, and even at this early point in Bierstadt’s career it’s unmistakably the work of his hand. I love his rendering of the brick, as well as those three flower pots sitting on the window ledge at the upper right.
On a side note, for a thorough, well-written analysis of this painting’s themes, please see http://www.19thc-artworldwide.org/winter03/79-winter03/winter03article/245-anti-catholicism-in-albert-bierstadts-roman-fish-market-arch-of-octavius