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Exhibition at Yale University Art Gallery brings art and science together
Albert Bierstadt, Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail, ca. 1873. Oil on canvas, 54 × 84 ¾ in. (137.2 × 215.3 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Mrs. Vincenzo Ardenghi.

NEW HAVEN, CONN.- Commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and the 100th anniversary of the creation of America’s National Park Service, Yosemite: Exploring the Incomparable Valley considers one of the country’s most celebrated natural landmarks through the fields of both art and science. Taking as its starting point Albert Bierstadt’s majestic Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point Trail (ca. 1873), the exhibition features works of art from the collection of the Yale University Art Gallery alongside natural history specimens—primarily botanical and geological—collected by scientists for the Yale Peabody Museum, as well as photographs, watercolors, and books from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Sterling Memorial Library that have helped shape understanding and appreciation of Yosemite.

Landscape painting was established as the first American art movement in 1825, nearly half a century before Bierstadt painted Yosemite Valley. Over time, landscape artists traveled farther and farther west to portray the expansion of the nation, discovering new wonders and inspiration for their art. Beginning in 1855, small bands of artists, scientists, and tourists traveled to Yosemite to explore the valley. The enormity of the western landscape, still inaccessible to most easterners, beggared written description and encouraged artists like Bierstadt to embrace a large scale for their paintings, immersing viewers in their scenes. Bierstadt first visited Yosemite in 1863 and became one of its early champions in art. By his next visit, in 1872, the completion of the transcontinental railroad had expanded access to the area to a broader segment of the American public—one that had been introduced to Yosemite by art and wanted to experience its landmarks in person.

President Abraham Lincoln extended the first protection to the region in 1864, in the depths of the Civil War, recognizing the valley and the ancient sequoias of nearby Mariposa Grove for their unsurpassed scale, unique character, and awe-inspiring beauty. Artists and scientists alike admired Yosemite’s majesty; further study during the ensuing decades would only enhance the appreciation of its power and its wealth of natural phenomena. Conflicting theories about the forces that had shaped the valley were debated by influential naturalists like John Muir, who would famously dub Yosemite “the incomparable valley.” The region seized and held the attention of the public, as it continues to do today, sustaining a widely shared commitment to its preservation.

Organized around Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley, this exhibition explores the painting’s artistic and natural contexts. Romanticized—and at times imaginary—representations of Yosemite by the first generation of artists to portray the region reveal the importance of Bierstadt’s detailed realism, which was so thorough that viewers were encouraged to examine his paintings through opera glasses. Although the paintings were at times criticized for such excessive detail, Bierstadt adopted a degree of realism that was compared to scientific study. With his art, he sought to understand the landscape and help his viewers do the same.

In addition to marveling at the details of Bierstadt’s painting, visitors can touch a piece of granite from the El Capitan rock formation, see an early, three-dimensional view from Glacier Point Trail through a stereo viewer, and contemplate the photographs that convinced Abraham Lincoln to sign the Yosemite Grant Act in 1864. A redwood specimen on loan from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies further allows visitors to experience the scale of Yosemite’s natural grandeur firsthand. “The wide range of materials in Yale’s collections pertaining to Yosemite has been a revelation in itself,” observes Mark D. Mitchell, the Holcombe T. Green Curator of American Paintings and Sculpture and curator of the exhibition, adding that “it reflects the many fields of human understanding advanced by the long and varied study of this remarkable corner of our world.”

Pamela Franks, Acting Director of the Gallery and Deputy Director for Exhibitions, Programming, and Education, remarks, “The concurrence of the Yale Peabody Museum and the National Parks Service anniversaries inspired this wonderful presentation, drawing Yale collections together in a novel and compelling way. Bierstadt’s glorious Yosemite Valley is a treasure of the Gallery’s collection that will now be seen with fresh eyes, both in the context of its historical moment and its relationship to the work of other artists and scientists studying and interpreting the valley in subsequent generations.”

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