“The artist was overwhelmed by the magnificent beauty of the valley and employed 'every moment painting from nature”Melissa Webster Speidel
Albert Bierstadt, the titan of 19th Century American Western landscape painting, visited the Yosemite Valley, on his second trip west in 1863. Other artists and explorers pre-dated Bierstadt’s visit to the Valley, and the artist would have been familiar with the engravings and photographs of the area published in Eastern newspapers and magazines. Seeing these early black and white images of Yosemite certainly fueled Bierstadt’s boundless and lifelong desire to paint new subjects and likely influenced his decision to include Yosemite on his second western journey’s itinerary.
Bierstadt was joined on the 1863 Yosemite trip by author Fitz Hugh Ludlow (whose wife, Rosalie Osborne, the artist would subsequently marry), and artists Virgil Williams and Enoch Wood Perry. According to Ludlow’s written accounts, the first glimpse of Yosemite was awe-inspiring for Bierstadt and himself. The group camped initially near the Merced River and then moved to a second camp closer to the base of Yosemite Falls. The trip lasted approximately six weeks ‘ from early August through mid-September ‘ and Ludlow reported that the artists worked each day producing paintings and sketches of the scenery before them (G. Hendricks, ”Albert Bierstadt: Painter of the American West”, New York, NY, 1975, pp. 130-132 and N.K. Anderson et al, ”Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise”, New York, NY, 1990, p. 81). According to Melissa Webster Speidel’s letter of authentication for the painting: ”The artist was overwhelmed by the magnificent beauty of the valley and employed ‘every moment painting from nature’. He would use these oil sketches and studies he painted on the trip to refer to when back in his New York studio painting finished oils” (M.S. Speidel, Authentication Letter to Morgana Blackwelder, 12 August 2016, p. 1). ”Because the paintings that resulted from the 1863 trip invariably offer an idyllic view of a new golden land, it is easy to forget that Bierstadt’journeyed west during the darkest days of the Civil War” (N.K. Anderson, p. 80). Started in April of 1861, nearly all of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles had been fought by the time of Bierstadt’s trip, including the critical July battle of Gettysburg where about 50,000 soldiers lost their lives. Nancy Anderson articulates in ”Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise”, ”for in the western landscape, and particularly in the mountains and valleys of California, Bierstadt found the perfect visual antidote to war” (N.K. Anderson, p. 80).
While other landscape artists engaged in escapism and allegory in their romanticized works, Bierstadt’s imagery has a peaceful nature ‘ but one grounded in real life. ”In his western paintings, Bierstadt offered something more. Distant plains, rugged mountains, and the valleys of California stood apart, untouched by war. Bierstadt’s images of such undefiled wilderness offered hope and held on promise of a second chance at Eden” (N.K. Anderson, pp. 80-81). Bierstadt ”painted approximately 108 finished oils of Yosemite [during the 1863 trip and again on a second visit in the mid-1870s], including several of El Capitan” (M. Webster Speidel, p. 2).
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