Albert Bierstadt is an outstanding American artist of the mid-late 19th century. He belongs to the Hudson River School, Rocky Mountain School, and Düsseldorf School (Manthorn and Bloom 15). The artist was most recognized for his journey to the American West and a series of paintings depicting mountain landscapes of Yosemite and the Rocky Mountains. The artist contributed to the advocacy of protecting pristine nature and the creation of National Parks. This work aims to analyze one of the best paintings by Albert Bierstadt, Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, in terms of using elements of art.
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Albert Bierstadt’s family immigrated to New Bedford, Massachusetts, from Germany in 1831 when he was just a year old. He studied painting in Düsseldorf for four years from 1853 to 1857. In the summer of 1863, he visited Yosemite Valley together with journalist Fitz Hugh Ludlow and artists Virgil Williams and Enoch Wood Perry (Manthorn and Bloom 17). Bierstadt loved nature and glorified its magnificence; he believed that the American landscape was the manifestation of God. Among his paintings depicting landscapes are Indians Spear Fishing (1862), The Rocky Mountains, Lander’s Peak (1863), Storm in the Rocky Mountains, Mount Rosalie (1866), and the landscapes of the Yosemite Valley.
Sunset in the Yosemite Valley (1869) depicts a valley at sunset, in contrast to Looking up the Yosemite Valley (1865), shrouded in the morning haze and the high blue sky of Yosemite Valley (1863). The mountains of El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks, the Merced River, and the valley are seen from a closer angle. Sun has almost disappeared behind the Cathedral Rocks on the middle ground, and the landscape is rapidly plunging into darkness (Manthorn and Bloom 60). In the sunset rays, the mouth of the Merced River and the base of El Capitan shine brightly, creating the main positive space of the painting.
A sad and disturbing impression is reinforced by the fast-moving low clouds through which the rocky peaks of the mountains erupt illuminated by moonlight. There are silhouettes of deciduous trees in the foreground, and behind them – the edge of the forest and upper part of the valley in slanting rays of the setting sun (Manthorn and Bloom 62). The sun looks quite ominous, the predominance of yellow-orange and black tones enhances this impression, somewhat softened by the gentle light emanating from the river.
The perspective is shifted to the right, towards the mouth of the river and shaded part of the valley. The center of the perspective is put behind the Cathedral Rocks and is invisible to the viewer. This shift is balanced by the direction of the rays, illuminating the middle ground from right to left (Manthorn and Bloom 65). Silhouettes of trees in the foreground and the nice texture of mountains and clouds give a sense of completion to the whole picture.
Thus, Sunset in the Yosemite Valley was analyzed in terms of using elements of art, such as space, values (shading, tinting), colors (intensity, contrast), shapes (perspective, shading), and texture (details). The perspective shifted to the right emphasizes the negative space of the picture; the texture elements enliven the landscape. Proper shading and tinting give the work depth and width, and the intensity of colors creates a solemn and disquieting mood.
Manthorne, Katherine, and Tricia Laughlin Bloom. The Rockies and the Alps: Bierstadt, Calame, and the Romance of the Mountains. GILES, 2018.
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