About the Work of Art:

Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902)
Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, ca. 1870
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas


Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902), Sunrise, Yosemite Valley, ca. 1870, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1966.1



Albert Bierstadt was best known for his majestic scenes of the Rocky Mountains and the Sierra Nevada. Yosemite, beginning in 1863, became a signature subject for Bierstadt, and he painted Sunrise, Yosemite Valley at the height of his career.

In 1862 Bierstadt saw photographs of Yosemite by Carleton Watkins (one of the first to photograph the area) in a New York gallery. Watkins’ images inspired Bierstadt’s trip to California in 1863. Photography further influenced Bierstadt because his brothers were photographers, and stereographs were a popular form of parlor entertainment at that time.

During the 1863 trip, Bierstadt spent seven weeks in the natural splendor of California’s Yosemite Valley, awed by the soaring granite walls. From this came a series of large-scale paintings depicting the valley's grandeur. Bierstadt would hike daily to scenic spots and set up a folding camp stool, easel, and portable color box and execute quick, small studies. When he returned east to his studio, the artist used the sketches, as well as photographs and stereographs, as sources for oil paintings such as this one, which combined selected elements into a unified whole. These magnificent landscapes are among his most famous works.

Bierstadt painted Sunrise, Yosemite Valley around the time of his third trip west in 1871–72. This view of the valley, looking east at sunrise, shows the Merced River, with its calm surface reflecting the mountains and trees along its banks. He captured the effects of light and atmosphere on the landscape at different hours of the day, painting numerous scenes of sunrises, sunsets, and moonlit nights. The detailed foreground anchors the composition, leading the eye to the haze-shrouded mountains, brilliantly delineated to suggest the awe-inspiring majesty of the West. As in many of his paintings of Yosemite or the Rocky Mountains, Bierstadt includes wildlife, often a bear or deer, to establish scale.

The painting evokes concepts that are common to the American romantic period, not the least of which is the depiction of the American West as the Garden of Eden, unaffected by the Civil War. The steep mountains tower over the river, dwarfing humans and animals. Heavenly light emanates from within the painting and a golden haze radiates from the horizon. The calm Merced River flows through the scene and leads the viewer’s eye through the composition, emphasizing the regenerative power of the landscape.

Yosemite derives its name from a Miwok Indian word for grizzly bear, a particularly suitable name for the region. Though the name endures, the grizzlies do not. In the 1880s Yosemite’s last grizzly was killed. Beginning in the mid-1800s, tourists and explorers came to Yosemite Valley; in 1864 Yosemite Valley came under California’s protection as the nation’s first state park. Yosemite became a national park on October 1, 1890.


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