Art Through Time: A Global View
The Natural World Art: Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail
On the rocky ledges in the left foreground, two small figures on horseback lend a sense of scale to the majestic landscape that spreads out in Albert Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail.
A setting sun bathes the scene in a glowing light, imbuing the distant mountains with a hazy, romantic quality. The valley and its river recede into the indistinct distance as if they might go on forever. Yosemite Valley is an image of awe-inspiring grandeur, unspoiled natural beauty, and infinite promise. The view Bierstadt offers in this work is very much in keeping with the romanticized notion of the West that dominated the American psyche well into the nineteenth century.
The West was a land of rich natural wonders, such as Yosemite, and natural resources—gold, oil, and timber among them. For many Americans, it was a place synonymous with opportunity, adventure, and self-reinvention that, despite being already populated by native groups, was considered free for the taking. The push West was not just a matter of personal gain, but also one of national interest. What’s more, it was validated by a belief that it was divine providence (or “Manifest Destiny”) that the United States should some day stretch from coast to coast.
Although human presence in Bierstadt’s view of Yosemite Valley is minimal, by the time he painted the work, the first transcontinental railroad was complete, tens of thousands of Americans had settled in the West, and each year hordes of travelers—sightseers, scientists, and government officials among them—made pilgrimages to places like Yosemite. Images of nature in its “pure” and “wild” state by Bierstadt and his contemporaries might be seen as having had an equivocal impact. On the one hand, it has been suggested that they provided fuel for the tourist industry that developed around places like Yosemite. On the other, they seem to have played at least a small role in the preservation of these landmarks.
Although much of Bierstadt’s work focused on the landscapes of the American West, he is associated with artists grouped together as the Hudson River School. These artists, among whom were counted Thomas Cole (1801–1848), Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900), and Asher B. Durand (1796–1886), had their studios in New York and belonged to many of the same social and artistic institutions. But what bound these artists together was a shared vision of America’s wildernesses as places that embodied nature in its purest form, put human existence in perspective, and inspired spiritual communion as well as national pride.
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.”
Barringer, Tim, and Andrew Wilton. American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States 1820–1880. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003.
Ferber, Linda S., and the New-York Historical Society. The Hudson River School: Nature and the American Vision. New York: Skira Rizzoli, 2009.
Gulbrandsen, Don. Visions of the American West: Landscapes. London: Chartwell, 2007.
Lubin, David. Picturing a Nation: Art and Social Change in Nineteenth-Century America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994.
Millhouse, Barbara Babcock. American Wilderness: The Story of the Hudson River School of Painting. Hensonville, NY: Black Dome Press, 2007.
O’Toole, Judith, and Arnold Skolnick. Different Views in Hudson River School Painting. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.