DescriptionAlbert Bierstadt (American, 1830-1902)
Sentinel Falls and Cathedral Peaks in the Yosemite Valley, 1864
Oil on board
9-1/2 x 12-3/4 inches (24.1 x 32.4 cm)
Signed and dated lower left: A. Bierstadt / 64
Initialed lower right: AB
Bears inscription on the reverse: H.S. / 68.89.10
Property from the Collection of The Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, Sold to Benefit the Management and Care of the Museum Collections.
The collection of Kathleen Morton;
The Western Reserve Historical Society, Cleveland, Ohio, gift from the above, 1968.
This luminous view of the Yosemite Valley at sunset ranks among the earliest paintings Albert Bierstadt produced of this majestic California landscape subject.
During the summer of 1863, Bierstadt made his second trip into the rugged American West to sketch its scenery, and returned to New York that December with a bounty of plein air studies that were used as references for future paintings. Unlike his first trip of 1859 which took him as far as the Rockies, Bierstadt's second trip was geographically much more ambitious. He traveled all the way to California and the Pacific Ocean, and most importantly, visited California's Yosemite Valley for the first time-the subject that was to secure his reputation as the preeminent painter of the American West.
Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, Yosemite was a place few Americans had been able to see firsthand owing to the arduous journey required to reach it. Bierstadt's first trip there predated the influx of tourism to be sure. But it was a location not entirely outside the public consciousness, for as early as 1860 a number of small-scale stenographic images of Yosemite and other California wonders had circulated to east coast audiences. However, as scholar Nancy K. Anderson has noted in her fine study, Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise (1990), one of the major factors influencing Bierstadt's decision to set his sights on California and Yosemite was the exhibition of Carleton Watkins' (1829-1916) enormous photographic prints, which the painter saw both at Goupil's gallery in New York in December 1862, and in San Francisco. The New York Evening Post published a glowing review of Watkins' "unequaled" California photographs that had captured Bierstadt's imagination: "The views of lofty mountains, of gigantic trees, of falls of water which seem to descent from heights in the heavens and break into mists before reaching the ground, are indescribably unique and beautiful. Nothing in the way of landscape can be more impressive or picturesque." (cited in N. Anderson, New York, 1990, p. 79)
Unlike the pointed snow-capped Rockies that Bierstadt had translated into a series of spectacularly grand canvases following his 1859 trip, the geography of Yosemite had no true analogue among the most dramatic Alpine vistas of Europe, which were formed by the collision of tectonic plates. Yosemite's majesty was different, largely because the topography was carved by a glacier instead. Rather than a landscape of sharp peaks, Yosemite had a distinctive square U-shape framed by strange monolithic slabs of blunted granite. They formed totems and flanking pylons that towered over the gleaming river carving through the valley floor. Bierstadt was savvy enough to recognize Yosemite as a uniquely American landscape, one that Americans would be thrilled to see in paintings-his paintings. Building upon his earlier successes with his commanding scenes of the Rocky Mountains, he set out with the ambition of making Yosemite his own through large-scale paintings of the type Frederic Church had popularized.
Bierstadt's brilliant choice of traveling companion on the 1863 trip was Fitz High Ludlow, a talented writer and prominent member of New York's literary set. Ludlow thoroughly documented their expedition resulting in the most complete record of all of Bierstadt's Western trips. Ludlow's account also provided an invaluable record of the journey's route and timetable (which help date Bierstadt's sketches), their contemporary impressions of the sights, and importantly, the painter's working methods. Ludlow reports how feverishly Bierstadt worked directly from life. The men spent seven weeks in the Yosemite Valley, in the company of two other artists of Bierstadt's acquaintance, Enoch Wood Perry (1831-1915) and Virgil Williams (1830-1886) who had joined them in San Francisco. Per Ludlow the artists arose at dawn and shortly thereafter were at work in "their divine workshop," laboring "in that only method which can ever make a true painter or a living landscape, -- color studies on the spot." (F. H. Ludlow, The Heart of the Continent: A Record of Travel Across the Plains and in Oregon, with an Examination of the Mormon Principle, New York, 1870, p. 426) Before sundown, all returned to camp, where half an hour was spent in "private view" of the sketches completed that day. The majority of Bierstadt's color field studies are oil on paper.
First impressions are enormously powerful, and we know from Ludlow's account published in The Heart of the Continent (op cit, 1870, p. 424) that when he and Bierstadt first arrived at Inspiration Point, the gateway to Yosemite, the sun was just about to set. It is unsurprising, then, that the majority of Bierstadt's eventual 25 canvases treating Yosemite Valley produced later in the studio show the site at sunset. Looking across the chasm, Ludlow wrote, as he saw the massive rock, El Capitan, "Our eyes seemed spellbound to the tremendous precipice which stood smiling, not frowning at us, in all the serve radiance of a snow-white granite Boodh-broadly burning rather than glistening, in the white-hot splendors of the setting sun." On August 22, Bierstadt himself wrote of the valley 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. Two old friends of mine are also here... both artists. We camp out altogether, get no news, and do not care for any for we are perfectly happy with the fine scenery, trout, ducks, deer, etc." (John Hay Collection, John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island)
Following a trip to Oregon through the Sierra Nevadas, Bierstadt and Ludlow concluded their journey and by mid-December 1863 were back in New York. Bierstadt quickly set to work in his studio at the Tenth Street Studio Building. In early January 1864 reporters began dropping by for news of his trip and glimpses of the works in progress. Following a practice he had initiated after his first trip West, Bierstadt covered his walls with studies made from life and filled the studio with photographs, Indian artifacts and stuffed animal heads he had acquired. "The artfully arranged objects served as an effective backdrop for a remarkable succession of paintings that began to appear almost immediately," Nancy Anderson observed.
One of the earliest documented paintings Bierstadt painted during the first months of 1864 was his radiant Valley of the Yosemite (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). Since it was painted on academy board on a smaller scale (11.87 x 19.25 inches) than the artist's other larger panoramic scenes, Valley of the Yosemite is generally regarded as a finished study for the vast canvas it very closely resembles, Bierstadt's first large-scale Yosemite picture entitled Looking Down Yosemite Valley. (1865, Birmingham Museum of Art, Birmingham, Alabama) In a sense, it functioned as a first draft for the final composition that measures 64.5 x 96.5 inches. Indeed, both paintings share a view of the western end of valley painted from a vantage point just above the Merced River, looking due west with the prospect framed by El Capitan on the right, and Sentinel Rock on the left; the spire of Middle Cathedral Rock is visible in the distance.
Shortly after its completion in April 1864, Valley of the Yosemite was exhibited at New York's Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, staged for the relief of sick and injured National Army soldiers fighting the Civil War. Despite its smallish size, the work sold for $1,600, which was the highest price paid for any painting in the sale. It was purchased by the noted art collector, James Lenox. Over the years, the work had a succession of highly discerning owners, including opera star Maxim Karolik and his blue-blooded wife Martha Codman, who gifted it to Boston.
The present work, Sentinel Falls and Cathedral Peaks in the Yosemite Valley, relates directly to Boston's painting-a true cousin in terms of date, style, signature, subject and materials. It is rendered with the same exquisite patience and level of finish, and on the same type of millboard. Side by side comparison reveals that the present work takes a slightly tighter view of the "cleft" in Yosemite Valley than the Boston view. The vantage point is closer to Sentinel Falls and Cathedral Rocks, with considerably less foreground. In terms of palette the present work is rosier in tonality-closer to an observed effect-than the Boston picture which ramps up the effects of golden radiance in the center of the composition. In fact, as Bierstadt painted more Yosemite Valley pictures over the course of the following years, his vantage point became increasingly more distant from the U-shape cleft in the valley, as a means for including more scenery and accentuating the drama. This would argue for the present work being slightly earlier than the Boston painting. This makes Sentinel Falls and Cathedral Peaks in the Yosemite Valley, in effect, Bierstadt's first version of the Valley of the Yosemite.
This historically significant work has been hiding in plain sight for the past half century, high on the wall of a period room at the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland, Ohio. Prior to its donation to the museum in 1968, it belonged to Clevelander Miss Kathleen Morton, one of three children of a successful hardware store owner. The family had amassed a small estate through their business endeavors, enabling them to acquire fine and decorative arts. Very little is known about Kathleen, who was believed to have been born around 1878 and, like her sister and brother, never married. She died without issue in 1968 and is buried in Cleveland's park-like Lakeview Cemetery. She would have had the wherewithal to travel, and acquire a painting such as this, though unfortunately such details are unrecorded.
We wish to thank Melissa Webster Speidel, President of the Bierstadt Foundation and Director of the Albert Bierstadt Catalogue Raisonné project, for her invaluable assistance and for confirming that this painting by Bierstadt is included in her archives.
More information about Albert Bierstadt, also known as Bierstadt, Albert, .
Framed Dimensions 18.5 X 21.625 Inches
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