Albert Bierstadt's paintings of the untamed American West are some of the most significant historical and artistic accomplishments of the nineteenth century. Other artists had made expeditions throughout the area as early as the 1830s, but Bierstadt was unrivaled in his ability to convey an image of this wondrous region to the American public. In 1873, Albert Bierstadt made his final trip to Yosemite after completing a two year stay in California. During this expedition, Bierstadt spent his time sketching in and around Hetch Hetchy Canyon and Yosemite Valley. Hetch Hetchy Valley executed in the wilds of Yosemite in 1873 was part of this campaign.
As early as 1859 Bierstadt visited the American West, a famously rugged territory at the time with Colonel Frederick Lander's U.S. Government Expedition. Traveling along the Platte River to the Wind River Mountains, the artist first witnessed the grandeur and beauty of the unspoiled western landscape. However, it was Bierstadt's 1863 journey overland to California which provided him the pictorial material used to create some of his most successful works. Accompanied by Fitz Hugh Ludlow, a prominent figure in the New York literary circles, Bierstadt traveled along the southern route arriving in San Francisco in July. After several days in the city, Bierstadt and Ludlow, also joined by Enoch Wood Perry and Virgil Williams, ventured to Yosemite via the Mariposa Grove of giant Sequoias. Camping and sketching for seven weeks, Bierstadt gathered ample material to complete several major oil paintings during the next eight years in New York.
Aboard the recently completed transcontinental railroad, Bierstadt and his wife embarked on the artist's second trip to the West in 1871. Immediately upon arrival in California, Bierstadt set out with Collin P. Huntington, the renowned railroad magnate, to the High Sierras to execute an additional series of sketches for his masterwork Donner Lake from the Summit (1873, The New York Historical Society, New York). After a brief trip back to New York, Bierstadt, throughout the winter, spring and summer of 1872, traveled to Yosemite and the High Sierra exploring the pristine valleys and canyons of the region. In the fall of 1872, the artist had the opportunity to travel with Clarence King, the leader of the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel, into the very remote terrain of Kings River Canyon in the South Sierra. Previously unchartered by government geologists, this area contained magnificent mountaintops and valleys that suited Bierstadt's vision of unspoiled terrain.
In June 1873, Bierstadt returned to Yosemite and checked into the Nevada Hotel. He set off to explore the Hetch Hetchy Canyon, a remote part of Yosemite that was still undiscovered by tourists for new places to sketch. Bierstadt was captivated by the remarkable and raw American landscape. He described it in one of the many letters he sent back east for publication in The Crayon: "If you can form any idea of the scenery of the Rocky Mountains and of our life in this region, from what I have to write, I shall be very glad; there is indeed enough to write about--a writing lover of nature and Art could not wish for a better subject. I am delighted with the scenery...We see many spots in when we look up and measure the mighty perpendicular cliffs that rise hundreds of feet aloft, all capped with snow, we then realize that we are among a different class of mountains; and especially when we see the antelope stop to look at us, and still more the Indian, his pursuer, who often stands dismayed to see a white man sketching alone in the midst of his hunting grounds." (as quoted in G. Hendricks, "The First Three Western Journeys of Albert Bierstadt," The Art Bulletin, September 1964, p. 337)
In Hetch Hetchy Valley, Bierstadt has transcribed all of the glorious elements that he witnessed and offers a panoramic view of the valley. In the foreground, Bierstadt combines trees, foliage and rocks to create a "viewing platform." From this platform, the viewer is able to look out over the valley. The painting's composition emphasizes the serenity of the view. The strong verticals of the impressive mountains and waterfalls are balanced by the winding river through the valley floor, emphasizing its flatness. In the crystalline air, Bierstadt paints the details of the mountains, trees and waterfalls with an eye towards creating an utterly placid, naturalistic scene of western splendor. The large tree in the immediate foreground carries the viewer's eye to the river which runs into the right edge, suggestive of unending natural beauty. As in many of the artist's works, in the present painting Bierstadt chose to paint a landscape without a hint of the presence of man: it was the untouched, primeval landscape that interested him most of all.
Collectors, critics and the public at large found immediate appeal in Bierstadt's expansive compositions of the American West such as Hetch Hetchy Valley. These impressive works provided for Easterners a panoramic view of the West that was undergoing rapid exploration and that was the topic of considerable interest. This audience was stunned by the landscape's magnificence and they delighted in the artist's interpretation of these panoramic views. Elements seen in the expansive landscape pf Hetch Hetchy Valley, provided further details which Bierstadt's Eastern audience came to enjoy and to expect in major compositions by the painter. A capable promoter of his own work, notes Linda Ferber, "Bierstadt effectively appropriated the American West, tapping public curiosity and excitement about these remote national territories. This interest was fueled, even during the apprehensive years of the Civil War, by the powerful idea of Manifest Destiny. The prevalent belief that Americans were divinely ordained masters of the continent lent special significance to Bierstadt's choice of subjects." ("Albert Bierstadt: The History of a Reputation," Albert Bierstadt: Art and Enterprise, p. 25).
Bierstadt's synthesis of the broadly monumental and the finely detailed, of grand scale and the intimate moment and infinitely varying forms, places his work among the most successful expressions of the many paradoxes of nature. This expression harmoniously brings together the spiritual and natural world. Like no artist before him, Bierstadt established himself as the pre-eminent painter with both the technique and the talent to convey the powerful visual impact of the Western landscape, to capture the mammoth scale of the open spaces, and to begin to interpret this new American landscape in a manner equal to its majesty and grandeur.
In summarizing Bierstadt's achievement, Gordon Hendricks, wrote that "his successes envelop us with the beauty of nature, its sunlight, its greenness, its mists, its subtle shades, its marvelous freshness. All of these Bierstadt felt deeply. Often he was able, with the struggle that every artist knows, to put his feelings on canvas. When he succeeded in what he was trying to do--to pass along some of this own passion for the wildness and beauty of the new West--he was as good as any landscapist in the history of American art." (Albert Bierstadt, Painter of the American West, New York, 1973, p. 10) Bierstadt, in Hetch Hetchy Valley celebrates the dramatic beauty of Yosemite's geological wonders through his keen sense of color, light and dramatic composition. Images such as Hetch Hetchy Valley transcended formal artistic expressions and became mythic beacons of the West for which Bierstadt is most famous.