Born into a German family who emigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts, Albert Bierstadt was one of the most prominent members of the Hudson River School and one of the first painters of the newly discovered landscape of the Far West, to which he travelled on numerous occasions. In 1859 the young artist joined the state expedition entrusted with the mission of opening a new railroad route to the Pacific on the orders of Colonel Frederick W. Lander. This initial contact with the legendary American mountains and the native peoples in their unspoilt habitats1 would be followed by another journey four years later, in 1863, with the writer and art critic of the New York Evening Post Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who left a detailed written testimony of the adventure in The Heart of the Continent.
Although everything appears to indicate that Evening on the Prairie was painted by Bierstadt on returning from what would be the last of his trips to the West in 1870, accompanied by his wife in the newly operational railway, the scene is directly related to one of the picturesque spots described in the letter he published in the art newspaper The Crayon after his first trip. In the aforementioned letter the artist not only recounted his adventure but gave enthralling descriptions of the Rocky Mountains, which he likened to the Alps.
Through paintings like this one, Bierstadt provides us with an idealised, bucolic view of the West and links up with the pastoral tradition of nineteenth-century German landscape painting. According to Elizabeth Garrity Ellis, compositional elements such as the low horizon and the figure of the solitary rider silhouetted against the light of a brilliant sunset display traces of the influence of the German painter Andreas Achenbach, whose oeuvre Bierstadt studied in Düsseldorf. The gleaming clouds and radiating bands of light, so characteristic of the painter, also bear a certain relationship to the exuberant sunsets imbued with theatrical effects of his contemporary Frederic Church, particularly Twilight in the Wilderness.