Among the Sierra Nevada, California has been my favorite piece of art in the Smithsonian American Art Museum for as long as I can remember. Since I am from a part of Maryland that borders DC, I have been to nearly every art museum in the area a countless number of times. This painting has, for a very long time, stuck out far beyond other exhibits to me.
The initial trait of the painting that draws viewers to it, and makes it so spectacular, is the manner in which it is displayed in the museum. The painting, which can be found on the east side of the second floor, is absolutely massive.
In addition to its sheer size, the painting is displayed alone in its own nook of the gallery, and is surrounded by giant red velvet curtains. There is one seat in front of it, which is different than in the above photo, currently a large round velvet cushion, which adds to the extravagant display.
The display is reminiscent of how the artist used to display his works. Prior to motion pictures, Albert Bierstadt and many other artists would display their creations to crowds of people behind large curtains, and open them as a reveal. This display truly brings out the vast beauty of the actual painting.
The painting itself is so visually enticing to me due to many artistic choices the painter made. The scene is based off of Bierstadt’s image of the American wilderness in the 1860s. However, Bierstadt painted the work in Rome, so he was creating the scenery purely based off of artistic imagination.
The image projects an ethereal, almost heavenly tone through lighting, hue, texture and saturation choices . In the top center of the painting, the clouds are painted in a manner that is so light and airy that it feels like there could be a real sun peeking behind them. Additionally, the darker hues from the mountains surrounding the clouds creates a dynamic contrast between the two that serves to further accentuate the lightness of the clouds. The shading gets progressively darker going to left of the clouds, enhancing the dominatingly massive cliffside and balances out even the lightest portions of the painting.
The textures of nature in this painting are incredibly intricate, making the image feel like it was created with intense precision and detail, while also giving viewers a vast, nearly surreal landsacpe that they can become visually lost in. For example, the lake’s reflection of the mountain is so clear and smooth, while towards the shore, viewers can clearly see small, real-to-life ripples from the contact with land, giving the painting a dynamic sense of life. Viewers can also see the jagged edges of a log painted to look worn down, contrasted with carefully textured green moss growth,
This painting is so massive that it cannot help but be noticed by everyone who passes by, but to truly appreciate its grandeur,you must get up close and observe all that it has to offer. I have personally spent nearly a full half hour just trying to take in all of the detail and beauty.