Bierstadt, the German born American artist, became know for his large landscape paintings, suffused with glowing light, depicting the wildernesses of western America and its sublime natural monuments. The work is perhaps a preliminary sketch for the larger more finished studio work Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, painted in 1865. It contains all the characteristic qualities of his more detailed canvasses: the vast mountains framing placid waters, the evocation of unsullied natural surroundings, the attention to small detail, and the setting sun bathing the whole virgin paradise in the warmth of the dying light.
Bierstadt's pictures are idealised depictions that were intended to appeal to the romantic notions of wilderness which his audience fostered. In this he triumphed, and he enjoyed great commercial success when his work achieved critical and popular acclaim. It is partly to do with the sensation his pictures engendered that calls were later raised to preserve the wilderness in what became the national parks. It was in Yosemite that Bierstadt considered he had discovered his ‘garden of Eden’, and this little picture, completed from sketches made during a surveying trip and worked up in his studio in New York, is replete with the scenery that so ravished his attention.
The essentially horizontal panorama of the landscape is dominated by the upward thrusting verticality of the mountains, which recede into the blues and yellows of aerial perspective like serried ranks of cyclopean buttresses. The faint veins of water, which cascade in barely noticed cataracts down into the lake, merely emphasise the vast bulk of the range as it presses down and surrounds the water where the spanning branches of the trees are echoed by the arching horns of the stag. The painting sold at New York’s Metropolitan Sanitary Fair, the buyer paying the highest price for a painting at this sale.