Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California

Albert Bierstadt (1865)

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, Albert Bierstadt (1865)
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, Albert Bierstadt (1865)

In a time when few Americans

In a time when few Americans had ventured west of the Mississippi, Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California offered a welcome view of one of the natural wonders on the far side of the continent. After his first trip to the American West in 1859, Albert Bierstadt produced a sequence of landscape paintings that proved so popular with East Coast audiences that he was eager to return to paint more. The onset of the Civil War postponed his trip, but in 1863 Bierstadt set off from Philadelphia to make the transcontinental journey by train, by stagecoach, and on horseback. When he finally reached California, the landscape surpassed his expectations. Born and educated in Germany, Bierstadt was well-acquainted with the beauty of the Alps; but nowhere in Europe, he maintained, “is there scenery whose grandeur can for one moment be held comparable with that of the Sierra Nevada in the Yosemite District.” Looking Down Yosemite Valley supports that nationalistic claim and expresses the artist’s own sense of wonder at his first sight of the majestic mountain landscape.

Bierstadt’s exceptionally large canvas (five by eight feet) and panoramic view down the valley (twenty to thirty miles) were calculated to draw the viewers into the picture to enjoy the spectacle themselves. Some contemporary critics objected to these sensational devices, arguing that Bierstadt’s methods made the picture look more like stage scenery than fine art — but this may in fact have been the desired effect. Bierstadt introduces no actors into his scene — not a single traveler, trapper, settler, or American Indian — and at the center of the composition, where we expect to find a dramatic climax to the action, there is only vacant space bathed in a golden lightthat breaks through the clouds. In Bierstadt’s scenario, the viewer takes the artist’s point of view and discovers that before so magnificent a landscape, human beings dwindle to insignificance.

Yosemite had been isolated by its geography until just before mid-century, when the 1848 California Gold Rush brought a surge of non-indigenous people to the Sierras and the valley was “discovered.” Americans were intrigued by the long-hidden valley, and Bierstadt satisfied their curiosity by documenting its major landmarks — the exposed granite block of El Capitán on the north side (the right of the canvas), opposite the spire of Sentinel Rock and masses of Cathedral Rocks — yet he exaggerates even their imposing proportions. The golden haze that Bierstadt used to soften the edges of the magnificent cliffs may be meant to excuse his creative manipulation of the truth. As one San Francisco critic observed in 1865, “It looks as if it was painted in an El Dorado, in a distant land of gold; heard of in song and story; dreamed of but never seen.”

Bierstadt possessed an uncanny understanding of what Americans in his time wanted to believe was waiting for them on the western frontier: a Garden of Eden blessed by God, untouched by civil war, and holding the promise of a new beginning. His romantic paintings embody the collective hope that a remote landscape could heal a nation’s wounds. The preservationist (and Sierra Club founder) John Muir, Bierstadt’s near-contemporary, affirmed the idea that the Yosemite Valley could refresh the spirit: “The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy,” he promised prospective tourists, “while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.”

Looking Down Yosemite Valley would have been underway in Bierstadt’s New York studio in 1864, when Abraham Lincoln set the territory aside as a state park. This was the first time the federal government had saved a tract of scenic land from development. But when the Transcontinental Railroad was completed five years later, the region was flooded with tourists who wanted to see for themselves the wondrous places they knew only from paintings and photographs. Returning to Yosemite in 1872, Bierstadt lamented the loss of the unspoiled wilderness he had portrayed only a few years earlier.