More about Sunset in the Yosemite Valley

Sr. Contributor

When Albert Bierstadt painted Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, there were no lines of cars and RVs waiting to get in, there were no advanced reservations required, and it was nothing like what visitors of today encounter at this world-famous valley.

Hell, it wasn’t even a National Park then! While you can still find unspoiled views in Yosemite, you’re going to have to share them with a lot more people.

Bierstadt is known for his large-scale landscape paintings that seek to glorify the magnificence of nature, and he does a pretty damn good job of it. Some critics have called his work overly dramatic, or just over-the-top, as in, nature may be pretty, but it can’t be THAT pretty, can it? Well, if you’ve ever seen a sunset in Yosemite, you’d probably agree that it’s something to see (if only all those other tourists weren’t there). Bierstadt himself would agree with his fellow German, Caspar David Friedrich, that nature’s beauty was totally sublime.

In 1863, Bierstadt traveled from New York to the West Coast with writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow, where he visited the Yosemite Valley, as well as Oregon and the Columbia River. Ludlow also happened to be an art critic (who loved Bierstadt’s paintings) for the New York Evening Post, and was able to use his position there to help Bierstadt’s career. However, the critic at The New York Sun was not a fan; in 1870 he wrote about an auction of a collection that included some of Bierstadt’s paintings: “They are not only among the worst, but they are the very worst of the collection…We would advise ambitious painters now struggling with obscurity to purchase one of these (they will sell for three or four dollars a piece) and to hang it up in the studio with the motto underneath, ‘Even I am a painter.’” So harsh!

While he may not have been the most original painter, Bierstadt was consistent; he painted several other dramatic sunset landscapes, such as Sunset (or Sundown) at Yosemite, Sunset over the River, Sunset in the Rockies, Sunset on the Mountain, and, well, you get the idea. While these were all spectacular in their own way, we don’t know if Bierstadt actually witnessed the exact view he depicted in Sunset in the Yosemite Valley; as this work was painted while he was back in Europe, possibly at a studio in Rome. He would make many sketches and also take photographs while on his travels and then produce his paintings after he returned home. He even helped produce the book Stereoptic Views of New Hampshire with his two photographer brothers. 

Bierstadt may have embellished the scenery and colors in Sunset in the Yosemite Valley, but the location certainly does exist. On the left is El Capitan, the Cathedral Rocks are on the right, and the sun is reflected on the Merced River. It looks like you can hike to a spot pretty close to where this view is today; you’re just going to have to deal with more people than Bierstadt could ever have imagined also taking in the sights of the Valley.