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10 / The Natural World

Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail
Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail
Artist / Origin Albert Bierstadt (American, born Germany, 1830–1902)
Region: North America
Date 1834
Material Oil on canvas
Medium: Painting
Dimensions H: 54 in. (137.2 cm.), W: 84 ¾ in. (215.3 cm).
Location Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
Credit Courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Vincenzo Ardenghi

expert perspective

Robin Jaffee FrankSenior Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Yale University Art Gallery

Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail

» Albert Bierstadt (American, born Germany, 1830–1902)

expert perspective

Robin Jaffee Frank Robin Jaffee Frank Senior Associate Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture, Yale University Art Gallery

In the nineteenth century, when Americans, especially easterners, living in cities looked at a painting by Bierstadt, it gave them the vicarious pleasure of communing with nature, of escaping to some place where the landscape appeared to be untouched by civilization. That is still, today, our mythic image of the American wilderness—the American frontier—as forever awaiting settlement, forever pristine, forever open to all of our hopes and dreams of communion with nature and of a vision for what this nation is and could be.

For example, in Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley Glacier Point Trail from the early 1870’s, you see four tourists—two on pack horses and one seated on a rock, and another standing and gesturing out towards this beautiful valley down below. There is this verdant valley. And you imagine yourself being one of those tourists and then your eye goes down into the valley and follows this waterway which leads you into a distance that seems to go on forever, promising that the frontier goes on forever. And bathed in a divine golden haze this sense that this land has been blessed by God himself. And that idea of America as a chosen place goes back to John Winthrop, the puritan who looked before him and called this place ‘the golden city on the hill.’ And then here we are in this place and Bierstadt is depicting it in 1873.

That golden haze also has another reference. Because in 1848, John Sutter discovered gold in them there hills near Sacramento. And that promise of financial wealth, of minerals, gold and silver, brought thousands upon thousands across the continent to seek their fortune. So that promise of this untouched pristine frontier was linked to a promise of financial security for the future of this nation.

Bierstadt went to the West first in 1859. Many artists would go along on these expeditions out to the West with scientists, with geologists, and they would do sketches. And then back in their studio, back in their studio on Tenth Street in New York City, they would take all of these sketches and make a composite fiction, a compelling fiction. It’s still the way we think of the American West today. So everything he was painting was true. In other words he had really seen a rock like that, he had really seen soaring peaks, but this peak didn’t necessarily stand next to that peak. And yet, standing in front of a Bierstadt today, you will still here hear visitors stand in front of Yosemite, and say, ‘Oh, I was there,’ and someone else will say, ‘Oh yes, it’s this place,’ and someone else will say, ‘Yes, it’s this place,’ because it is the landscape of the mind. It is what we think we see. Because we have been so conditioned to see it by Bierstadt’s paintings.” 

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