Inspired by the spectacular and unspoiled wilderness he encountered in the American West, Albert Bierstadt set out to record the landscape for posterity, focusing on the natural wonders of the largely unexplored and undocumented territories of Yosemite, the High Sierras and Yellowstone. He was among the first American painters to capture the grandeur and natural splendor of the region and to record the many atmospheric moods of its climate and terrain.
Upon first casting eye over Yosemite Valley in 1863, Bierstadt proclaimed, “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” (quoted in Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art, Washington, D.C., 2012, p. 62). The interpretation of the divine spirit Bierstadt found in the mountain valleys of the western panorama characterized the depictions of Yosemite he produced thereafter and he completed his first large-scale rendering in 1865 (Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama). He would continue to take the dramatic topography as a subject for years to come becoming more closely associated with the place than perhaps any other artist. Painted circa 1875, Yosemite Valley brilliantly captures the monumentality and majesty of the place on an intimate scale.
Bierstadt would travel to Yosemite twice more, in 1872 and 1873 and Gordon Hendricks comments on the fervid stimulation Bierstadt drew from the remote location, “In Yosemite the artist made studies for some of his most attractive, inspired works” (ABierstadt, Fort Worth, Texas, 1972, p. 19). Yosemite Valley superbly demonstrates Bierstadt’s translation of the Hudson River School formula to the rugged verticality of the West. The high vantage point, crystalline quality of light and tranquility of the scene are reminiscent of Sanford Robinson Gifford’s A Gorge in the Mountains (Kauterskill Clove) (1863, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Yet the rugged topography sets Yosemite Valley apart from the eastern landscapes of Bierstadt’s peers and reveals a different type of sublime.
In the present work, the viewer is overcome by a sense of discovery, as the West appears to be opening itself up, the river leading the eye back into the scene, through the valley past El Capitan on the left and Cathedral Rocks on the right, beyond the spray of Bridalveil Fall to the distant snowy peak of Half Dome. It is as if one has stumbled upon a hidden valley–a pristine paradise. The composition gives the viewer the sense of having entered into hallowed ground, a sacred space where nature is all powerful. Here man, represented by the lone figure painting on a rocky outcropping, is overwhelmed by, yet at peace with nature. This painting also contains a rare self-portrait by Bierstadt, who painted as such, under an umbrella, from the time he was a student in Düsseldorf in the 1850s.
Bierstadt set out to record the American landscape focusing on the natural wonders of these largely unexplored and undocumented regions. His idealized interpretations of the West were in keeping with the image of the frontier held by many who would never travel there and his paintings were highly sought-after by patrons willing to pay record prices for his spectacular canvases. “Bierstadt’s paintings of Yosemite held out the promise of a New Eden, a place in which all Americans could slough off the trauma of war and sectarian strife, a place of renewal and healing” (Eleanor Jones Harvey, The Civil War and American Art, Washington, D.C., 2012, p. 60).
The present work was most likely owned by Ulysses S. Grant, the famed general who led the Union troops to victory during the Civil War and became the 18th president of the United States in 1869. Grant and Bierstadt knew one another as earlier as 1877 and are known to have dined together at Delmonico’s restaurant in 1881. It is appropriate that Grant, who in 1872, signed the bill to create the world’s first national park – Yellowstone – would own such a majestic view of Yosemite.
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