An accomplished landscape and portrait painter, Thomas Hill gained his early academic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, where he studied under Peter Rothermel. He traveled through the East, spending much time painting the White Mountains in New Hampshire with leading Hudson River School artists as Asher B. Durand and George Inness. Stricken with tuberculosis, Hill moved to California and settled in San Francisco in 1861. Inspired by the dramatic landscape of California, he opened a studio in Yosemite, near the Wawona Hotel where he found financial success selling his works to visitors.
Hill was among the first painters to arrive in California with the expressed purpose of depicting the majesty and beauty of the California landscape. Beginning in the 1860s, the artist executed canvases that evoked the pristine qualities of the great western expanse, and specifically the dramatic topography of Yosemite. Painted in 1879, Royal Arches and Domes of Yosemite is a rare early depiction of the artist's best-known subject. In contrast to his many large canvases of often dramatic scale, the present painting provides a more intimate view of the Yosemite interior while still capturing the distinct atmosphere and grandeur of the river valley. Hill has rendered Half Dome with a soft hazy pink light, setting apart its distance and vastness from the splendor of the figures entering the water in the foreground. The overall effect is one of quietude set against the inspiring majesty and limitless quality of the Western American landscape.