Just a short while ago, a pair of climbers accomplished a remarkable and frankly terrifying feat: free-climbing the sheer 3,000-foot face of Yosemite’s iconic El Capitan. Their 19-day journey up the rock was followed closely by people across the country and around the world. Perhaps part of the reason for our collective fascination with this endeavor was our familiarity with the cliff’s imposing silhouette. El Capitan, along with its fellow formation, the even-more-iconic Half Dome, is among the most pictured chunks of rock in the country.
Art has played a major role in turning Yosemite into a defining icon of nature in America. Artists were Yosemite’s earliest and most effective advocates. Their paintings and photographs sold the promise of a spiritually and culturally important experience, and drew countless visitors to California’s Sierra Nevada wilderness.
First protected in 1864 as a state park, by the time Yosemite was established as a national park in 1890, it was one of the most recognizable landscapes in the country. Artists captured the geological wonders of the landscape —Yosemite Falls and the awe-inspiring rock formations El Capitan and Half Dome—in grand terms.
Today Crystal Bridges unveils a recent acquisition: Thomas Hill’s large-scale painting of Yosemite Falls, made in 1884. Hill first visited Yosemite in 1865 and, after moving from the East Coast to California in the 1870s, made regular sketching trips to the park. He gradually came to be known as a painter of the Yosemite landscape. In 1883, Hill was the first artist to build a studio in Yosemite Valley, and he moved permanently to the Wawona Hotel in Yosemite Park in 1886.
The physicality, size, and symbolic potential of Yosemite presented a challenge for artists. Hill emphasized the impressive 2,425-foot-height of Yosemite Falls through a vertical composition. Further, the inclusion of a tiny fisherman in the foreground gives human scale to the waterfall.
This painting is now on view in Crystal Bridges’ Colonial and Early-Nineteenth Century Art Gallery, along with a collection of large-format photographs of Yosemite made by Carleton E. Watkins in 1869.