The vantage point is taken from the very top of the Californian Central Railroad as it passes through the mountain range within Sierra Nevada, situated in California. Bierstadt painted Donner Lake from the Summit, under the instruction of Collis P. Huntington, who at that time was the Railroad King. Bierstadt had previously been to this area during his three year trip to the west during the years of 1871, '82 and '83. The painting is often referred to as the View of Donner. Sadly, when Huntington was presented with this magnificent landscape painting, he was somewhat disappointed.
This was due to the fact that he secretly wanted an accurate and detailed portrayal of the railroad itself, not that of a highly artistic painting which focused heavily upon the surrounding landscape. When observing Donner Lake from the Summit, the railroad can hardly be seen, and appears to the tucked away to the right of the painting. Donner Lake from the Summit is not picture perfect, like that of a photograph, which the Railroad King had wished for. What we observe in this naturalistic painting, is pure nature. We stand as if on top of the mountain range and simply take in the mesmerising view that lays before us.
What we see is a wilderness. We see the various mountain ranges before us, a scattering of trees to the left and in the far central distance, the weak sun in the sky above the romantic looking lake. The entire image, that was commissioned to show the railroad, instead is dominated by the plentiful rocks that appear in layers from foreground to background. This painting cleverly uses an artistic technique based upon stereoscopic photography, something that Bierstadt was incredibly interested and skilled in within the photography world.