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Stunning Paintings by Acclaimed Artists Bierstadt and Bell-Smith Offer a Window Into Canadian Rockies' History

Updated: Jun 27

By Anne Ewen, Director and Chief Curator of Art and Heritage

On display at the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies until October 20th, 2024, are rare paintings of historic significance to the Canadian Rockies by painters Albert Bierstadt and Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith.

Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902, American)  Lake Louise   1889  Oil on Canvas  38 x 60 inches  Private collection, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902, American) Lake Louise 1889 Oil on Canvas 38 x 60 inches Private collection of Ted Turner, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, RCA (1846 – 1923)  Camping in the Rockies  c. 1890  Watercolour on paper  14.5 x 10.5 cm  Private collection, Calgary AB
Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith, RCA (1846 – 1923) Camping in the Rockies c. 1890 Watercolour on paper 14.5 x 10.5 cm Private collection, Calgary AB.

The story of how these paintings came to fruition cannot be told without first introducing Sir William Cornelius Van Horne (1843 – 1915). In his capacity as a builder and later President of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), Van Horne’s interest in the arts was profound and his natural ability, artistic knowledge, and refined eye were respected by artists and connoisseurs. He also understood that a successful marketing campaign must reach beyond Canadian interests, targeting American and European sensibilities.

Much has been written about Van Horne’s business acumen, his boundless energy and tireless attention to the details of the construction of the CPR. His accomplishments as an amateur artist, connoisseur, and collector are also recorded. However, the influence he had on the artists with whom he sketched and those he encouraged are less celebrated. Van Horne’s desire to acquire the best combined with his enthusiasm and sway profoundly affected the composition and quality of works being produced in Western Canada at the time. He specifically selected the artists and photographers who were already valued for their artistic technique and intercontinental connections.

Some of the best painters and photographers of the day were sought after and encouraged to construct a pictorial vision of the West, resulting in one of the most significant art collections ever amassed in Canadian history. Instead of paying the artists for their participation, perks were provided in the form of free rail passage, temporary railcar studios, accommodation at mountain lodges, and the promotion of their works at international exhibits.

Therefore, between 1886 and 1914, the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) encouraged artists to produce works to promote western Canada as an idyllic tourist destination and desirable settlement locale. It was also a strategy to sell tickets to diminish the huge debt incurred by the construction of the rail line.

Well-known to Van Horne was Albert Bierstadt (1830 – 1902), an American painter renowned as a leading landscape painter of the Hudson’s River School and its luminist movement. Noted for his majestic interpretation of the American West, it is understandable he would be invited to paint in the Canadian West.

The correspondence with Lord Stephen, the first president of the CPR, and Van Horne, began in 1887 with enthusiasm and sincerity expressed by Bierstadt to travel to Canada’s Rocky Mountains. In 1888, a flurry of letters was exchanged but Bierstadt’s endless excuses and demands to include his European friends, his wife, and her maid resulted in cancellation. Bierstadt finally accepted Van Horne’s generous incentives and departed from Windsor Station, Montreal on July 30, 1889. Bierstadt was provided with a rail pass, exclusive use of a caboose car in which to paint, a hand car for short excursions along the line, unrestricted train stopping authority and reservations at the CPR’s Banff Springs Hotel, Glacier House, and Vancouver Hotel.

Also well-known to Van Horne was Canadian artist Frederick Marlett Bell-Smith (1846 – 1923). Best known for his watercolour and oil pictorial interpretations of Ontario and the East Coast, he was the first Canadian to be granted a personal sitting by Queen Victoria, resulting in Queen Victoria (1895). His stylistically conservative paintings were popular in both eastern Canada and Britain, affording him a diverse clientele and much admiration. Bell-Smith first travelled west in 1887, with his last en plein aire mountain sketch recorded in 1918.

It was while resting at Glacier House, B.C. in 1889 that Bierstadt met Bell-Smith. Bell-Smith’s personal journal entry describes that summer as “being stricken by fires and very smoky.” Indeed, he had the unfortunate opportunity to travel back and forth from Montreal to Vancouver three times without seeing a single mountain. Fortunately for both Bierstadt and Bell-Smith, the fires subsided, and the smoke cleared, enabling the two artists to spend September camping and sketching at Lake Louise. Neither had been to the lake before, where the remote and rugged surroundings provided spectacular vistas for sketching, watercolour paintings, and photography.

“Some of my pleasantest recollections are of the early days at Lake Louise. My first visit to that charming spot was in 1889, in company with Mr. Albert Bierstadt, of New York, an artist very celebrated in his day. There was then no hotel there – not even a trail to the lake, so we carried blankets, etc., and camped on the lake shore at the very spot where the main entrance to the hotel or chateau now is. I remember also that we had the pleasure of meeting there Col. O’Hara, who camped near us and we spent a pleasant evening round the camp fire. Since then, I have seen the hotel gradually increase in size from one which only accommodated ten persons. (Ah! Those were the days. We were like a little family, and agreeable friendships were formed; but now everything is changed.).” An Artist’s Reminiscences, by F.M. Bell-Smith, The Canadian Alpine Journal, 1918.

Bell-Smith later cited Bierstadt’s compositional guidance and influence as having a profound inspirational effect on his future compositions. Indeed, the approach learned from Bierstadt inspired Bell-Smith to articulate the landscape in a way that represented the universal perception of a majestic mountain landscape. This tactic enabled Bell-Smith commercial subsistence when nearly all the other mountainscape artists were fading. By 1912, he was dubbed the Premier Painter of the Rockies.



Donald Allan Pringle, Artist of the Canadian Pacific Railroad, 1880 – 1900, A Thesis in the Department of Art History, Concordia University, December 1983

Jonh E. Staley, The Premier Painter of the Rockies, Macleans Magazine Vol. XXV, no. 2, December 1912



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