The Rocky Mountains, etched proof

Albert Bierstadt's (1830–1902) large painting, The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak, completed in 1863, presented the drama of the American West to audiences in the Eastern United States. The Rocky Mountains was Bierstadt's first big success, and he quickly developed a marketing strategy to promote his work. He contracted with engraver James Smillie (1807–1885) to produce a large black-and-white reproductive print. Then he sent the painting on tour, to be exhibited in art galleries in several eastern cities, accompanied by a subscription book and promotional flyers describing the engraving. It was available in four versions, from a limited number of artists' proofs priced at $50 each to an unlimited edition of plain proofs at $10 each.
Public exhibitions in commercial galleries, together with the growth of the print trade, expanded opportunities for people to see paintings and purchase reproductions. Publishing prints enhanced an artist's reputation and added significantly to his income, but engraving on steel was a slow and painstaking process. It took Smillie more than three years to complete his work, in part because the painting was unavailable for him to copy. First Smillie drew the details of the image with a needle on a large steel plate, measuring 43 by 70.5 centimeters. This background image was etched in acid, and the Museum's copy is an early stage proof made "off the acid" to check Smillie's progress with the design. Several areas of the print remain to be completed. They were finished by hand with the engraver's cutting tool called the burin.
In 1888 Smillie's son George donated this proof, which had been signed and dated by his father in 1865. Bierstadt also donated a signed impression of the final state of the print. Both states were exhibited together to demonstrate the process of engraving.
Currently not on view
Object Name
Object Type
Date made
Smillie, James
original artist
Bierstadt, Albert
Physical Description
paper (overall material)
ink (overall material)
image: 43 cm x 70.5 cm; 16 15/16 in x 27 3/4 in
sheet: 62.5 cm x 89 cm; 24 19/32 in x 35 1/32 in
ID Number
catalog number
accession number
Rocky Mountains
See more items in
Culture and the Arts: Graphic Arts
Data Source
National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center
Credit Line
Gift of George H. Smillie

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