Friday, October 28, 2011

A Western Maverick in a Vermont Yankee's Court

Albert Bierstadt's large (10 feet by 15 feet) landscape The Domes of Yosemite (1867) is permanently housed in a gallery that had to be built around it. The display includes a skylight (currently being rebuilt) and a special "viewing balcony" to recreate the original lighting and exact location from which Bierstadt painted his sketches of the scene.
Albert Bierstadt's Domes of the Yosemite is an important painting by one of the most important American artists of the 19th century, and it's "hidden in plain sight" in a small town in upstate Vermont. 

In his prime, Bierstadt won international acclaim and the equivalent of rock-star status for his outsized paintings of the American West. His giant oils were among the first images of the West's natural wonders that many Americans, in particular the large concentration of those on the East Coast, had ever seen. Some art historians consider him one of the greatest landscape painters who ever lived, and the 10 x 15 foot "Domes of the Yosemite," housed in the picturesque St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, is an excellent and representative example of his work.

St. Johnsbury Athenaeum
The painting's first owner, Legrand Lockwood, lost his fortune in the turbulent gold market that was part of the rush. He was a self-made financier who began as a clerk for a brokerage firm at 18, opened his own firm, and rose to become head of the NY stock exchange in pre-Civil War New York. Thanks to the gold rush, he became one of the country’s first millionaires and began buying up railroads and other hot properties. 

Lockwood bought the Bierstadt in 1867 for a Vanderbilt-style mansion he began building in 1864 (a 62-room turreted stone castle featured in the Stepford Wives). Five years later he was dead, having lost a good bit of his fortune following the devaluation of gold in 1869, and the contents of his estate hit the block.

The man who built the athenaeum in Vermont, Horace Fairbanks, was looking for a centerpiece for a world-class art collection he was building for the citizens of St. Johnsbury. He bought the Domes dirt cheap at auction in 1872.  The painting sold for a mere $5,100, a pittance compared to the astronomical $25,000 the previous owner paid Bierstadt just five years earlier. 

The painting is large enough that the walls of the athenaeum’s gallery had to be built around it. A custom arched skylight and a special "viewing balcony" constructed at the opposite end of the gallery in 1882 completed the painting’s permanent housing. The skylight is intended to provide ambient natural light, while the balcony positions the viewer relative to where the artist was standing when he painted the scene, namely, midway up Yosemite Falls near Columbia Rock. 

All of these elements, including the painting's scale, the natural lighting, and the viewing balcony, were intended to accentuate the immersive "you are there" realism Bierstadt professed to offer his audience.  According to the Athenaeum's website, "visitors coming to see the painting when it toured to New York, Philadelphia, and Boston received a key identifying the sites visible in the landscape and a topographical map showing the vantage point." In fact, the Domes's realism is relative; Bierstadt skillfully compressed the vista and exaggerated various features for dramatic effect.

The library at the Stl Johnsbury Athenaeum
To my knowledge, the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum is unique in all the world in providing a permanent architectural setting that enhances the viewing of a single landscape painting by combining natural "outdoor" lighting and a special viewing area that recreates the location from which the artist painted it. It's a very Victorian American idea.

Bierstadt himself would end his life in bankruptcy. Another victim of fickle market forces, he saw his paintings selling for a fraction of their previous value as the post-Civil War public gradually lost its taste for grand, optimistic panoramas of pristine wilderness. Today, art historians consider him one of the greatest artists in the history of American art, and St. Johnsbury’s magnificent Domes of the Yosemite is worth untold millions. 

The athenaeum’s entire collection is a kind of time capsule of the kind of painters and paintings that the late 19th century prized most, painters like Bougereau, Corot, Kensett, Cropsey, and Cole, whose true worth is only now being recognized. Their reputations may have flagged during the 20th century as modern art stole the spotlight from traditional landscape and classical figure painting, but today the pendulum has swung back (probably permanently) in their favor, and the works of Bierstadt and others gathered in St. Johnsbury are destined to be recognized as the precious gems of an extraordinary and important collection.


  1. What a terrific story! Really enjoyed today's blog. Would love to take a hike up to St Johnsbury to see this magnificent work. Also want to thank you for telling me about the book Strapless. Just finished it last week and loved reading it. Now I view John Singer Sargent in such a different light. Thanks for your wonderful blog!

  2. It's amusing to think about the art world's predilection for the latest cultural trends, with masterpieces being relegated to the sidelines now and again (and then hopefully being appreciated anew) in the name of "progress". Thanks for an interesting article which touches on many important issues...both historical and cultural.

  3. Really so beautiful painting I thing the painter is a Magician who made this amazing painting.
    Thank You

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