Painted in 1865, Yosemite Valley is a beautiful example of the landscapes that earned Albert Bierstadt recognition as one of America’s most distinguished artists of the 19th century. The Edenic wilderness of Yosemite—in all its seasons and times of day—was a favored subject for Bierstadt, who returned to it frequently throughout his career. His admiration for the territory materialized through the exquisite detail he used to convey the serene grandeur of the land. In Yosemite Valley, Bierstadt situates the viewer on a peak above the valley—a position that offers sweeping vistas of the pristine environment. The distant sun illuminates the sky and bathes the lush landscape, surrounding peaks, impressive waterfalls, and winding river in a golden light. The single deer upon a rock near the center of the composition emphasizes Yosemite’s grand scale, but also heightens the solitude, absolute stillness, and rugged purity of a land still largely untouched by humankind.
Bierstadt, an American painter of German birth, made his first trip westward in 1859 as part of Colonel Frederick Lander’s Honey Road survey party, during which time he made sketches and photographs of the land and people he encountered. After two unsuccessful attempts to reach California in 1860 and 1862, he embarked once again in 1863 accompanied by New York author Fitz Hugh Ludlow and the artists Enoch Wood Perry and Virgil Williams. In August of that year, the group descended upon Yosemite Valley. The men stayed in the valley for seven weeks, rising at dawn each day to document the landscape. Inspired by Yosemite’s enchanted vistas, Bierstadt enthusiastically wrote to his friend John Hay, “We are now here in the Garden of Eden I call it. The most magnificent place I was ever in, and I employ every moment painting from nature” (Nancy Anderson and Linda Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, Brooklyn, New York, 1991, p. 178).
Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley exemplifies why the artist was celebrated for creating works that, according to Gordon Hendricks, “envelop us with the beauty of nature, its sunlight, its greenness, its mists, its subtle shades, its marvelous freshness. When [Bierstadt] succeeded in what he was trying to do to pass along some of his own passion for the wilderness and beauty of the new West he was as good as any landscapist in the history of American Art” (Albert Bierstadt, Painter of the American West, New York, 1971, p. 10).
Upon his return from California in January 1864, Bierstadt filled his Tenth Street studio in New York City with portfolios of sketches, photographs, and other items he accumulated during his journey—material he would continue to use as inspiration for his paintings for years to come. His subsequent renderings, in large and small formats, captured in great detail the magnificence of the American West. Captivated by his idealized images of the faraway frontier, collectors eagerly sought Bierstadt’s works and were willing to pay record prices to acquire them.
The widespread interest in Bierstadt’s western landscapes arose from patriotic factors as well. Bierstadt completed many of these works near the end of the Civil War, a bloody and turbulent period that threatened to tear apart the country. His romanticized visualizations of the vast and breathtaking American West appeased the distressed nation. They afforded a connection to the peaceful antebellum era and inspired promises of hope and expansion. Likely due in part to the widespread popularity of paintings of the region, when Bierstadt returned to Yosemite Valley in 1872 he was met with an unfamiliar landscape now frequented by tourists. His eastern audiences had made their own journeys westward to experience for themselves this new Garden of Eden.