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January 2014: Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California

/ Collections - Spotlight on the Collection

Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California. Albert Bierstadt, 1865. Oil on canvas. 64 1/2 × 96 1/2 inches. Gift of the Birmingham Public Library, 1991.879.
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California. Albert Bierstadt, 1865. Oil on canvas. 64 1/2 × 96 1/2 inches. Gift of the Birmingham Public Library, 1991.879.
Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, Albert Bierstadt, 1865

Albert Bierstadt’s adept handling of the brush, sensitivity to composition and color, and ability to capture the atmospheric qualities of light place him among the most effective painters of the natural splendor of the American West. This view of Yosemite Valley is not only a masterpiece of American landscape but also a document of the history of Western expansion in the United States. At just over five feet tall and eight feet wide, the grand dimensions of this work serve to convey the immense, wild beauty of Yosemite in order to encourage Americans living east of the Mississippi River to explore and to settle the great frontier.

Bierstadt’s epic American landscapes reflected a nationalist vision of America in the 19th century. Born in Solingen, Germany in 1830, he immigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts with his family at the age of 2. Like many at the time, the promise of opportunity in the New World lured the Bierstadts away from Europe’s uncertain political and economic climate. Primarily self-taught, he became interested in art at a young age and returned to Germany in in 1853 for training. He spent three years in Düsseldorf studying, communing with other artists, and painting European landscapes before returning to New Bedford.

In search of new subject matter, Bierstadt joined an expedition through the Rocky Mountains in 1859. There, he discovered the majestic vistas that would become his signature. On a second westward expedition in 1863 – a long, uncomfortable journey to the Pacific reached overland via the Oregon Trail – he encountered Yosemite. The sketches made on his travels to the Pacific Northwest provided “blueprints” for some of his most magnificent works, including Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California. Completed at the end of the Civil War, this work presents a calm and awe-inspiring view of the American West. The spectacular, natural panorama suggested the possibility of a new beginning for those living in war-ravaged states back east. The artist left the painting vacant of almost all animal or human life, suggesting that this pristine Eden – untouched by the bloodshed and suffering of Civil War – lay waiting to be “discovered.”

 —Joanna Wilson, UAB-BMA Curatorial Fellow 2013-2014   

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For centuries, idealized landscapes have served as tools for promoting nationalism and escapism. Bierstadt’s romantic images of the West contrasted sharply with the bleak realism of Civil War photography, which exposed the ugliness of war for those Americans living outside the battle zone.

Pictures of places can impact on our lives. How do images affect the way you feel about faraway destinations you have never visited? Have you ever traveled or even relocated to a place because you fell in love with its painted or photographed version? How did the place itself live up to the image in your head?

 Click here to check out more of Bierstadt’s paintings, and join the conversation!