Measuring more than five by eight feet, Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California presents a breathtaking view of one of America’s most scenic spots. Using sketches made during a visit in 1863, Bierstadt paints the valley from a vantage point just above the Merced River, looking due west. A sunset bathes the valley’s rock formations in a warm, golden light, with the prospect framed by El Capitan on the right, and Sentinel Rock on the left; the spires of Cathedral Rocks are visible in the distance.
Painted in 1865, the dramatic picture is Bierstadt’s first large-scale Yosemite picture, a subject for which he would become well known. Bierstadt was born in Germany, immigrating to the United States in 1830. In 1853, he returned to his homeland, studying at the Düsseldorf Academy, a school that advocated a clear, linear style, which Bierstadt would incorporate in his own work. Looking Down Yosemite Valley possesses an almost uncanny clarity: from a distance, the painting could easily be mistaken for a photograph, and even up close, one can scarcely detect a single brushstroke. Equally absent is any sign of animal or human life. Since the work was painted at the end of the Civil War, scholars have interpreted this dead calm as a commentary on the national tragedy. Indeed, the painting’s unveiling at the National Academy of Design had to be postponed by two weeks because of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
After its debut, the painting was exhibited around the country before being purchased by Uranus H. Crosby in 1866 for the princely sum of $20,000. Crosby was the proprietor of a lavish opera house in Chicago, which had a picture gallery to house his personal art collection. Crosby’s excessive spending habits soon forced him to find a creative means of satisfying his debts. He held a nationwide lottery, offering his opera house as the grand prize, and Bierstadt’s masterpiece as the second prize. The lottery was so successful that Crosby was able to pay off his creditors and buy back the opera house from the winner. Fortunately for Crosby, he retained the winning ticket for Looking Down Yosemite Valley.
In 1871, Crosby’s Opera House was completely destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire, but the painting was rescued before flames engulfed the building. Over the next two decades, it was exhibited periodically in Chicago, but eventually disappeared from view. It resurfaced in 1929, when it was purchased at a Chicago auction for $300 by a Birmingham woman, who anonymously donated it to the Birmingham Public Library. It hung in the reading room of the library until 1974, when it was transferred to the Birmingham Museum of Art on long-term loan. The Library permanently donated the work in 1991. It has become the anchor of the Museum’s American collection and is among the most highly regarded American landscape paintings in the country.