New Bedford Whaling Museum
Active in the local 19th-century art community of William Street, New Bedford’s “Gallery Row,” Eliza Bierstadt (1833-1896) was likely America’s first female art dealer. Eliza grew up in an artistic family. Brother Albert was the popular 19th-century American landscape painter, and brothers Charles and Edward, respected photographers known as the “Bierstadt Brothers.” Eliza, the youngest child of Christina and Henry Bierstadt who arrived in New Bedford from Germany in 1832 on George Howland’s ship Hope, was born in New Bedford on August 3, 1833.
New Bedford’s wealthy residents appreciated and could afford art, and the Bierstadts profited from this supportive environment. Eliza’s work as an art dealer began at the Ellis Art Gallery on William Street (now The Bedford Merchant) where she sold paintings by her brother and Charles Henry Gifford. She expanded the business to include Hudson River artists in Niagara Falls, New York, where she moved with brother Charles and sister Helen in 1867, living there until her death in 1896. Her art dealings included buying, selling, finding studio space, and setting up table displays at art fairs.
Letters to Eliza, held in the Albert Bierstadt Collection at the Winterthur Library in Delaware, reveal her savvy business skills, her knowledge of art supplies, and a busy social life. The collection contains a scrapbook compiled by Eliza documenting Albert’s career and her pivotal role in its advancement. The collection includes a butterfly created by Eliza, who learned Albert’s technique of painting a butterfly half, folding the wet paper to produce the whole butterfly, and adding antennae in pencil. At parties, Albert would create these signed “Bierstadt butterflies” as souvenirs for his guests.
In an 1869 trip to Europe with Albert and his wife Rosalie, Eliza mingled with the elite of the literary and art worlds as well as with French royalty. It is fitting that she owned Albert’s 1862 masterpiece Sunlight and Shadow, as she lived by her own light and moved out from her brother’s shadow. After her death on June 10, 1896, in Niagara Falls, Eliza was returned to New Bedford and buried at Rural Cemetery.
Ann O’Leary, Emily Bourne Research Fellow
“Albert Bierstadt Collection.” The Winterthur Library, The Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, Winterthur, DE, http://findingaid.winterthur.org/html/HTML_Finding_Aids/COL0276.htm.
Blasdale, Mary Jean. Artists of New Bedford: A Biographical Dictionary. New Bedford Whaling Museum, The Old Dartmouth Historical Society, 1990.
Hendricks, Gordon. Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West. Harry N. Abrams, .
Medeiros, Peggi. New Bedford Mansions: Historic Tales of County Street. The History Press, 2015.