RENO — From Albert Bierstadt’s 19th century landscapes to Ansel Adams’ famous photographs, the images of the Yosemite Valley tell as much about the culture and history of the expansion of the West as they do about the national park itself.
The story unfolds in the inspirational beauty of more than 100 paintings, photos, American Indian baskets and other artwork depicting some of the nation’s most recognizable wilderness in “Yosemite: Art of an American Icon,” running through mid-January at the Nevada Museum of Art.
“It really is seen as the shining or the chief jewel in California’s scenic crown,” said Amy Scott, curator of the exhibit from the Museum of the American West, Autry National Center in Los Angeles.
“It emerges early on in 19th century American art and thought very much as a golden place, filled with light and truly sort of an American Eden, awaiting the chosen people and bicoastal expansion.”
The images are familiar to most:
• El Capitan.
• Half Dome.
• Yosemite Falls.
“Yosemite really has gained its stature based upon how artists have portrayed it over the years,” said Amy Oppio, deputy director of the Nevada Museum of Art, just south of the downtown casino district.
“Even if you’ve never been there, you’ve seen it in paintings and photographs and prints,” she said.
It is Adams’ stark black and white photographs that have made the park a familiar image to many. His work makes up a small part of the overall exhibit.
“We chose not to focus on Adams,” Scott said. “It would be easy to do. And people want to see Adams. He is in many ways Yosemite’s signature artist, the artist so widely associated with the park today.”
“But we really wanted to show a much broader picture because Adams’ legacy is so huge that at times it almost overwhelms not only those who came after him, but those who came before him.”
The photos on display include his 1927 “Monolith: The Face of Half Dome,” which he took with his final frame of film that day, Scott said.
“When he developed the print in the darkroom that night, he realized he had made an incredible leap forward in his own art as a photographer because this captured not necessarily the way Yosemite looks, but the way it made him feel.”
Chris Van Winkle, a painter and president of the National Watercolors Society, has been teaching art courses at the park for nearly 20 years in a program run by the Yosemite Association. It’s that emotional experience he treasures most about the place.
“It’s a feeling of rebirth, regeneration,” said Van Winkle, who also teaches at Citrus College in Glendora, Calif.
“If you are a poet or artist or photographer and you are not totally inspired there, then you’ve got to get the hell out and do something else. You’ve got to be a plumber or something.”
The exhibit opens with a print by Thomas Ayers, “Yo-Hamite Falls.” He was hired to create images for the expedition’s leader, magazine publisher James Mason Hutchings, and it became the first Yosemite image circulated to the public when Hutchings published it in 1855.
Next come several pieces by Bierstadt, the first national artist to visit Yosemite in the 1860s, including “Yosemite Valley” (1868) drenched in soft yellow light from the setting sun.
“He very much sets the standard for representing Yosemite as a welcoming valley, as a pastoral retreat, a golden land filled with light and shining vision of the West,” Scott said.
“They are taken as literal evidence of this place, which is otherwise unbelievable in terms of it size, monumentality and sheer scale of its scenery.”
More than 12 feet wide and 6 feet tall, Thomas Hill’s “Yosemite Valley (From Below Sentinel Dome as Seen From Artist’s Point)” (1876) covers an entire wall of one room of the exhibit. Hill, Bierstadt and others produced many large works for wealthy clients at the time, this one for the San Francisco Palace Hotel.
“It took eight of us to carry it,” said Ann Wolfe, curator of the museum.
The series of photographs begin with Carleton Watkins, the first major American to get the park on photo paper, and Eadweard Muybridge, who hauled a huge box camera up and down the valley and its cliffs.
“They change the history of American photography,” Scott said.
The cameras had to be big enough to hold giant glass negatives needed to produce photos of the same size at a time before the technology of enlarging had been developed. They were designed to be big in part to compete with the landscape paintings as art, Scott said.
“You see the emergence of photography staking really its first claim as art, landscape art, asserting itself as something other than documentation,” she said.
Both photographers captured the scenes from extreme vantage points with little or no foreground to emphasize the vast size and shape of the terrain.
“They are almost literally dizzying. Some people say they experience vertigo from looking at Muybridge images,” Scott said.
William Hahn’s “Yosemite Valley from Glacier Point” (1874) was the first painting to feature tourists as the subject of the landscape itself, depicting women and children with men overlooking the valley while enjoying a leisurely day in contrast to the rugged, largely inaccessible nature of the area before the arrival of the transcontinental railroad.
The more modern works include Tony Foster’s painting “Eight Days On Eagle Peak,” which includes pieces of the actual landscape itself attached to the bottom of the painting, a piece of trash, rocks, an arrowhead and a tiny bottle of water from Yosemite Creek.
“It refers to our process or our habit as tourists to take a piece of it home with you,” Scott said. “Foster in fact calls these his souvenirs, the idea that the experience is something we want to capture.”
Mixed among the art work are dark brown wooden signs like those from the National Park Service, and on the floor are round emblems depicting the stakes that tell rock climbers and backpackers how high they are, “U.S. Geological Survey, Elevation 4,513.”
Wooden boxes with plastic sheets outline questions and ideas for children to look for in a sort of treasure hunt along with plastic binoculars which make for a great way to zero in on parts of the large paintings in a way that makes one feel like they are actually there.
Scott said the natural architectural design of Yosemite, the granite walls rising from the meadow floors, was one of the reasons artists were attracted to the area.
Based in part on the pictures, contemporary writers described it as “nature’s cathedral,” she said.
“This religious image of Yosemite rings particularly true with artists and the public in the era of manifest destiny and bicoastal expansion,” Scott said.
“Its natural, geological design fits with the way artists and writers are thinking about the nation at this time during the Civil War,” she said.
Wolfe said the exhibit should appeal to a number of different audiences.
“It has a little bit of something for everybody whether you are looking for a historical painting or contemporary photography or new media work,” she said.
Since it’s opening in 2003, the museum’s collections and many exhibitions have focussed on the environment, beginning with the building itself — architect Will Bruder designed it after a rock formation in the Black Rock Desert, 100 miles north of Reno — and continuing with an ongoing exhibit on man’s alteration of the landscape.
“It is a theme we have adopted and feel strongly about,” Wolfe said. “In a number of ways in this exhibit, we try to impart the importance of caring for the environment.”
After Reno, the exhibit moves to the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, where it will be on display March 22 through Aug. 9.ON THE WEB
• Nevada Museum of Art
• Yosemite National Park