Looking Down Yosemite Valley

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Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California (1865)

"Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California" (1865) is a monumental oil painting by Albert Bierstadt that is among the more notable and popular works in the permanent collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art.

The painting was completed in 1865 following Bierstadt's travels in the western United States in 1859 and 1863. It was first shown, in the "position of honor", in that year's exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York. It toured with Bierstadt to Philadelphia, Milwaukee, and Cincinnati the following year,

The 64" tall by 96 1/4" wide canvas with heavy walnut frame was purchased for $20,000 in December 1866 by Uranus H. Crosby, a Chicago distiller who constructed the Chicago Opera House, where he proudly displayed his new acquisition. Facing financial trouble, he offered the painting as second prize in an 1867 lottery for the deed to the Opera House. The 2nd place ticket went unsold and he made enough off the lottery to buy the Opera House back from the winner.

The curator of Crosby's collection, James F. Aitken, rescued "Looking Down Yosemite Valley" and fifty other paintings from the great Chicago fire of October 1871 which destroyed the Opera House. The rescued portion of the collection was exhibited in Boston, apparently as part of a fund-raising tour for helping Chicago rebuild. The collection returned to Chicago in late 1871 or 1872 and was loaned to the Chicago Fine Art Institute in from 1873 to 1875 and to the Chicago Art Institute in 1885 and 1887.

No notice of the painting's whereabouts is recorded until October 1929, when it was auctioned in Chicago for a mere $300 to a Mr Friecz, an employee of the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, who brought it to Birmingham when he was transferred south. He, in turn, donated it to the Birmingham Public Library with the stipulation that the Library insure it for $15,000. It hung in the Library's literature department, darkened by age and unrecognized as a work of Bierstadt's, until 1974 when Edward Weeks, curator of painting and sculpture at the Birmingham Museum of Art suggested a conservation cleaning. After cleaning it was loaned indefinitely to the Museum, and made a permanent gift in 1991.

In September 2001 the American Art Galleries were reopened with in a new format designed by curators David Moos and Anne Forschler that combines fine and decorative arts and features Alabama-made objects of the period between the American Revolution and the mid 1920s. Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California was given a new place of honor at the entrance to the 6000 square foot gallery, terminating the view down the main first floor hallway.

A similar but much smaller version of this scene was painted in 1864, probably as a sketch for this painting. It hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and was used on a United States postage stamp honoring the painter.


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