Yosemite Valley

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Yosemite Valley

United States, 1875
Paintings
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 40 1/2 × 72 1/2 in. (102.87 × 184.15 cm) Frame: 49 1/4 x 81 1/4 x 3 1/2 in. (125.095 x 206.375 x 8.89 cm)
A. T. Jergins Bequest (M.71.115)
Not currently on public view

Curator Notes

In the autumn of 1872 Keith made the acquaintance of John Muir when he explored the hills beyond Yosemite with the naturalist. Yosemite Valley was a product of a later trip in 1875....
In the autumn of 1872 Keith made the acquaintance of John Muir when he explored the hills beyond Yosemite with the naturalist. Yosemite Valley was a product of a later trip in 1875. A dramatic, composed image, it was painted in the artist’s studio specifically as an exhibition piece. It portrays a commanding view of Cathedral Rocks, which are in the valley along a bend in the Merced River. Nothing obstructs the panoramic view. A bit of the river bank is included as a repoussoir to lead the viewer into the scene. The towering trees are arranged on the sides to permit an open vista of the cliffs. The addition of the riders, while suggesting a narrative, was also essential to the composition. Even the pile of dead tree trunks in the center of the painting was arranged so that the large logs would link the two sides of the painting. Keith created many such epic paintings during the period between his two European trips, and many of these were criticized as too artificial. Although the general appearance of this version might give the impression of a standard picturesque composition, Keith avoided the tight, linear painting style associated with the Düsseldorf school. He also escaped the pervasive grays of such German landscapes by infusing the background of Yosemite Valley with an array of soft, opalescent hues.
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About The Era

Until 1893, when historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the western frontier closed, the nation had perceived itself as an ever-expanding geographical entity....
Until 1893, when historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the western frontier closed, the nation had perceived itself as an ever-expanding geographical entity. The frontier moved westward as the forests of the Adirondacks, Catskills, and Alleghenys of the eastern seaboard were cleared and inhabited. Euro-American settlers pushed across the continent, through the Great Plains and Rocky Mountains, until they reached the Pacific Ocean. Although the actual travels of explorers, government surveyors, and settlers can be traced through the changing locales in landscape paintings, such depictions were to a certain extent idealizations. In the romantic-realist tradition of the Hudson River school, artists emphasized the primitive character of the wilderness and presented the newly cultivated farmlands as agrarian oases divinely blessed by rainbows and golden mists.
Artists and writers promoted nature as a national treasure. However, the wealth of the land was measured in commercial as well as aesthetic terms. Railroads and axes appear in paintings as symbols of civilization, yet they also were instruments of destruction.
According to some, the nation was preordained by God to span the continent from coast to coast. In 1845 the editor John O’Sullivan coined the term “Manifest Destiny,” referring to the country’s duty to annex western territories and exploit their resources. The same railroad tycoons and land developers who promoted such a policy also commissioned artists to paint epic scenes of the American landscape. Manifest Destiny ignored the rights of Native Americans, who had inhabited the region long before European settlers arrived. Consequently, it is not surprising that Native Americans are absent from, or stereotyped in, most of the painted views of the land they called their home. The West seen in most nineteenth-century paintings was largely one of the imagination.
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Label

Exhibition Label, 1997 ...
Exhibition Label, 1997 Keith, the most esteemed resident landscape painter in late-nineteenth-century California, is best known for his views of Yosemite. He first visited the area in 1868 but frequently returned to the Sierras, sometimes with the naturalist John Muir (founder of the Sierra Club in 1892) and landscape photographer Carleton Watkins. This grand-scale panorama is in Keith’s early style, reflecting elements of Hudson River-school romanticism as well as the tight, linear, realist style of the Dusseldorf Academy in Germany, where Keith trained. The site is easily identifiable as a view of Cathedral Rock along a bend in the Merced River. Keith dramatized the scene through lighting, shrouding the grand cliffs in soft, opalescent hues, much as Albert Bierstadt did in his sublime vistas of the Sierras. Yosemite had been established as a nature preserve by President Lincoln in 1864. In the postwar era it became one of the West’s most popular tourist attractions, luring hardy folk such as the two horseback riders here. Yosemite’s unique geological formations, conveyed through paintings such as this one, captured the imagination of Americans.
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Bibliography

  • About the Era.
  • Moure, Nancy Dustin Wall.  Western Scene.  Los Angeles: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1975.
  • Fort, Ilene Susan and Michael Quick.  American Art:  a Catalogue of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art Collection.  Los Angeles:  Museum Associates, 1991.