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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

Additional Resources

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.

Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail

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

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.

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