In late 1867, Albert Bierstadt was in London when he learned of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, and immediately set out for Italy to paint the volcano in action. Bierstadt saw Vesuvius erupt in January of 1868, and the resulting painting—Mount Vesuvius at Midnight—was exhibited in London by June, and in Boston and New York later that year. A critic for the New York Herald described the scene writing, “It represents Vesuvius in one of the grandest phases of her late volcanic fury, and so real, vivid and startling are the colors that it is difficult to believe it a mere illusion. The scene is at night, and the fiery, dazzling glare of the eruption, which crimsons both earth and sky, is blended and softened by silvery moonlight.”
Unfortunately, Mount Vesuvius at Midnight is now lost, although a smaller version survives in the collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. In 1869, Bierstadt copyrighted a chromolithograph after his painting, which was subsequently produced in France. Chromolithography—a method of color printmaking—provided artists with a means of accurately and inexpensively reproducing oil paintings and making their work available to a wider audience. Until recently, there was only one known example of the chromolithograph of Bierstadt’s Mount Vesuvius: in the collection of the National Library of France. With the discovery of this second example, the Birmingham Museum of Art now has the only known example in the United States, and one of two in the world.