The Domes Project
“The St. Johnsbury Athenaeum and its extraordinary collection of 19th century art is certainly one of Vermont’s—and the nation’s— most exquisite cultural gems. To experience Albert Bierstadt’s The Domes of the Yosemite in that remarkable interior, surrounded by other jewels in their collection, is one of the great cultural experiences that I hope all visitors to and from Vermont enjoy.”
-- David Schutz, Vermont State Curator
Albert Bierstadt’s The Domes of the Yosemite dominates the gallery’s western wall. Bierstadt garnered attention in the 1860s for his grandiose landscape paintings, particularly those that captured the newly accessible American West. He first traveled to the Yosemite Valley in 1863 and completed The Domes of the Yosemite in 1867. As the Athenaeum catalog noted in 1875, “This painting of the Valley of the Yosemite is considered the crowning efforts of Bierstadt’s power...it is impossible to look at on this picture and not be impressed.”
Originally commissioned for $25,000 for the Connecticut home of American financier Legrand Lockwood, The Domes was showcased in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston before its installation in Lockwood’s mansion. The Domes found its way to St. Johnsbury when Horace Fairbanks purchased it at auction in 1872. The painting received a warm reception in St. Johnsbury, touted as “the very best work of this celebrated artist” in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian.
“The great tradition of American landscape painting, which began modestly in the 1820s with intimate views of the eastern forests of New York and New England, reached maturity, in the years following the Civil War, with expansive vistas of the Rocky Mountains, the icebergs of the North Atlantic and the volcanoes of Ecuador. Albert Bierstadt’s monumental The Domes of the Yosemite, 1867, measuring an impressive 116 x 180 inches (not including its magnificent original frame), stands at the apogee of the tradition.”
-- James Maroney
The Domes of the Yosemite is unique in many aspects, including its size, age, and historical significance. At nearly 10x15 feet, The Domes is the largest work Bierstadt completed, even requiring the construction of special scaffolding to work on the painting. As the painting approaches its sesquicentennial, it continues to impress.
The Domes also encapsulates an historical crossroads in American history. In the wake of the Civil War, the late 19th century represented a period of exploration as Americans forged west and continued to redefine the country’s character. Bierstadt’s works, like The Domes, brought images of the country’s grandeur to Americans in the east. A contemporary New York paper noted, “It is worth a week’s travel to see this great picture, and it is with pride that we contemplate the work, and know that these grand hills are in our own country.”
The Domes of the Yosemite has been well cared for since its arrival at the Athenaeum. This care includes professional condition assessments, cleanings, and revarnishings. In the spring of 2016, expert conservators evaluated the painting, and have outlined suggestions for maintenance work to safeguard this treasure for future generations.
Proposed Treatment of the Painting On Site
Each day a conservator will set aside time to answer visitors’ questions. They will also complete a full report, complete with photographs.
We will move the massive oak frame away from the wall so the painting can be removed. The staff will vacuum and clean the back of The Domes, and carefully dust the front. Open cracks will be treated, and a protective paper layer will cover the painting. The Domes will be rolled onto a large tube, wrapped in plastic, and shipped to Miami for restoration.
Once the painting has left, the oak frame will be reinforced, and the back wall of the Art Gallery will be insulated to better protect the painting upon its return.
Treatment of the Painting in the Miami Studio (A climate-controlled, alarmed space)
Once it arrives in Miami, The Domes will be carefully unrolled and mounted onto a specialaluminum loom, which will keep the painting under controlled tension. The back will be thoroughly cleaned and the old varnish removed.
The painting will be carefully flattened with light moisture, weights, heat, magnets, and loom tension. A lining will be adhered to the painting, which will protect it from future distortions due to the climate fluctuations in the Art Gallery. Then the painting will be varnished and allowed to rest before being rerolled and shipped back to the Athenaeum.
Reinstallation of the Painting
Once returned to the Athenaeum, The Domes will be unrolled, remounted on the original stretcher, and placed back into the oak frame. Additionally, the painting will be raised in the frame so we can see Bierstadt’s original signature. We anticipate the painting to be back in place by the spring of 2018, to continue astounding visitors with its majestic view of the American West.
Your gift will help us preserve this important treasure as we continue our mission to inspire lifelong learning and preserve the Fairbanks legacy for the people of St. Johnsbury and the wider community.