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Albert Bierstadt - The Domes of the Yosemite

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), German-American
The Domes of the Yosemite, 1867
OIL ON CANVAS, 116 x 180 inches
Gift of Horace Fairbanks

Albert Bierstadt's Domes of the Yosemite depicts one of the nation's most admired natural wonders and is, appropriate to the scale of its subject, among the artists most ambitious compositions. The painting was created during a period of self-discovery for Americans fascinated by the western landscape and its awe-inspiring natural phenomena. Photographs and landscape paintings by artists, including Bierstadt, who traveled with government survey expeditions during the late 18505 and 186os captivated popular audiences and inspired pioneering environmental legislation to protect the region from commercial exploitation. Abraham Lincoln officially granted the Yosemite Valley to the state of California in 1864, creating the first public land trust in American history. In an era when California remained a distant and inaccessible region for most Americans, Bierstadt's monumental painting offered viewers a compelling personal experience of its grandeur and uniqueness.

Bierstadt's beginnings foretold little of his later fame as the nation's most celebrated portrayer of the American west. Born in Germany and raised in coastal New Bedford, Massachusetts, he only began his academic training in 1853, when he traveled to Dusseldorf, Germany to study. He spent the next four years traveling through Germany, Italy, and Switzerland before returning to the United States. Conditioned by his experiences in the Alps, Bierstadt cultivated a taste for mountainous landscapes and made his first trip west in 1859 with Frederick W. Lander's government survey party. With him, the artist brought a stereoscopic camera, which emulates human sight by taking two photographs simultaneously just inches apart, a forerunner of three-dimensional glasses. Stereoscopic landscape photography immerses the viewer in the experience of space, much like Bierstadt's magisterial Domes of the Yosemite would do on a vastly larger scale in the ensuing years.
Bierstadt first visited the Yosemite Valley in 1863, while on his second trip west. The author Fitz Hugh Ludlow, who was traveling with the party as well, wrote about his impression upon first entering the valley:

We did not so much seem to be seeing from that crag of vision a new scene on the old familiar globe as a new heaven and a new earth into which the creative spirit had just been breathed. I hesitate now, as I did then, at the attempt to give my vision utterance. Never were words so beggared for an abridged translation of any Scripture of Nature.

Our vantage point in Bierstadt's Domes of the Yosemite is from midway up Yosemite Falls near Columbia Rock. Visitors coming to see the painting when it toured to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston received a key identifying the sites visible in the landscape and a topographical map showing the vantage point. The latter makes clear that Bierstadt dramatically compressed the valley's features to narrow the valley and juxtapose various well-known elements. The landscape's soaring features answer one another across the valley, echoing the elegant whorls of rock known as the Royal Arches at the composition's center. By emphasizing the site's vertical elements, Bierstadt was able to accentuate the scene's soaring heights, deliberately evoking the architectural forms of a medieval cathedral's central nave.

The Domes of the Yosemite fits so seamlessly into the Athenaeum's Art Gallery that it is difficult to imagine it elsewhere. Nevertheless, the work was originally commissioned for the Connecticut home of financier Legrand Lockwood well before the Athenaeum was founded. Lockwood was devastated by the depreciation of gold in 1869, however, and died soon thereafter in 1872. The $5,100 that the painting sold for at auction after Lockwood's death paled in comparison with the astonishing $25,000 that he originally paid Bierstadt for the work in 1867. The Domes was then purchased by Horace Fairbanks to be the visual centerpiece of the Athenaeum's Gallery addition. Whereas the polygonal north and south alcoves maximize the wall space for exhibiting numerous smaller works, the broad, single face of the western wall offers pride of place for a single, dramatic composition. The addition of a viewing balcony on the opposite end of the Gallery in 1882 completed the Gallery's arrangement in its current form, and offers an excellent vantage from which to explore Bierstadt's composition.

Today, Bierstadt's Domes of the Yosemite remains the centerpiece of the Athenaeum's art collection, drawing visitors from around the country and the world. Its presence in St. Johnsbury is a testament to Fairbanks' desire to make the Athenaeum a center for the study of art and culture.