This painting of an unspoilt area of California, still largely a wilderness at the time, shows a bold and confident artist who clearly has a deep affection for his subject matter. Bierstadt was a landscape painter at heart and by this stage in his career had found the perfect vocabulary to describe his feelings for the American West. Sacramento River Valley shows a stunning use of colour to depict not just a specific place but a sense of time. The rolling clouds in yellows, blues and greys, Constable-like in their realism, give a strong sense of the time of day Bierstadt must have worked.
The clouds and their trembling, tempestuous presence are at the heart of this painting, and it's hard not to read into those troubled skies some sense of the emotional life of the man that created them. The formal nature of the painting is remarkable too, the use of the contours of the valley to draw the eye towards the distance and to what may be waiting over the next peak or behind the next twist in the trail. For Bierstadt, who travelled all over America often accompanying expeditions to map out new territories, the excitement of undiscovered lands must have been a significant influence.
As an integral member of The Hudson River School of painting, a group who brought a European love of nature to America during the nineteenth century, Sacramento River Valley stands alongside others of the era as a classic of its kind, with bold use of colour, a formality of style and a sense of confidence and purpose that Bierstadt had built up through his years of travelling the vast and often desolate 'New World'. Bierstadt is perhaps more well known for the paintings he made of the Yosemite National Park, but in Sacramento River Valley we can see the obvious passion and a sense of awe that he clearly felt when faced with the power of the natural world.