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“Sequoia Garden, Cathedral Forest, Calaveras County” by Albert Bierstadt (1840-1902) is remarkable for a number of reasons, its' monumental size (over sixty inches tall), it's subject (the old growth Sequoia trees) and its story, the fact the painting had been lost lost to scholars and the public for over thirty two years. Recently Dr. Scott Shields, Associate Director and chief curator of the Crocker Art Museum in Sacremento,  learned of it and recognizing how unique and rare to capture the endangered California Sequoia, arranged for the painting to be loaned to the museum.

Sequoia Image 1Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), “Sequoia Garden, Cathedral Forest, Calaveras County”

At sixty inches in height this painting is one of only three known large Sequoia paintings by the artist. The three relate by size to each other in sequence. The smallest, Grizzly Giant Sequoia, Mariposa Grove, California is 29-13/16 by 21 inches and in the collection of the Los Angeles County Museum, about half the height thus one quarter the size of this one, the trees are similar in lay out.

lacountyAlbert Bierstadt (1830-1902), "The Grizzly Giant Sequoia, Mariposa Grove, California" Col. LA County Museum of Art

The largest canvas at 118-3/8 inches tall, The Great Trees, Mariposa Grove, California Grove, 1876, a painting that was formerly on display at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, and it was rumored to have sold to the American art collector William Gates, Seattle and Microsoft for somewhere near $10 million.

mariposaAlbert Bierstadt (1830-1902), "The Great Trees, Mariposa Grove, California Grove, 1876" Private Coll., Seattle WA

As a series, to go from 30 inches tall to 60 inches tall then 120 inches, that rhythm would indicate they were painted in sequence as related studies. Unfortunately in the artists day the Sequoias subject were not well understood, this is best illustrated in period reviews of the artists work cited in the footnotes on page 240 in the book by Linda Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise, from the New York World from Nov. 26, 1875:

Mr. Albert Bierstadt has now established himself for a winters work in the gallery of the Tenth Street Studio Building, with two great canvases looking centennial wards. Both of these are underway. One is an upright, whose salient feature is the Grizzly Giant, which is to say one of the great trees of Calaveras County, California, a cedar, and it is to be presumed in all its features a portrait, so that the artistic value of the painting will not be the only element of interest in the work.

Simply put it must be said Eastern Americans did not understand the importance or scale of these giant trees, Cedars? So Bierstadt moved on from the provincial tastes of his native New York and went abroad to exhibit some of what may be the same works in the United Kingdom several years later. The following review appeared in the Art Journal (London) in July of 1879:

One of the first men to represent to us on an adequate scale the character of the mountain backbone of North America -it's gorges, it's forests, it's fauna, it's lakes and waterfalls - was assuredly Mr. Bierstadt: and we have the pleasure in welcoming him back to this country with his pictures of fresh fields and pastures new. His two grand works of "The Sierra Nevada Mountains" and "Wellingtonia" or Sequoia Gigantea, to speak learnedly, are now on view at Thomas Agnew and Sons... At first glance one would take the tree we have here for a full length portrait of fine Scotch fir, or some tree of a kindred genus: but on looking down the bole to the men at its base, we find they are the merest of pygmies, and it is then the proportions of the mighty trunk break upon the eye and we feel we are in the presence of one of Nature's titans. These two pictures belong to an order of landscape quite unknown to the British practice and we have no doubt they will attract the keen interest of British artists.

By the 1880s American art or the native school as it was called went fast out of fashion, into attics and storeroom for a centuries worth of neglect and obscurity. The Sequoias were not so neglected, the wrong sort of attention arrived first, namely timber interests, as a number of the original Sequoia groves, including the Fresno Grove were put to the blade, ancient trees, survivors of the millennia, gone, sliced into beams, shingles, tables and chairs.

Not so foul was the fate of Mariposa and Calaveras Groves. One became part of Yosemite National Park and the latter became a California state park, preserved to this day, the last remnants of an ancient forest range, literally the largest living plants on the face of the earth.

One of the keys to their survival was a man named Galen Clark (1814-1910), the first warden of Yosemite, as well as the accidental discoverer of Mariposa Grove. Clark, a former gold rush miner who suffered from consumption, today thought to be tuberculosis, went west in search of gold, and after his mining days were forcibly ended by ill health, he wandered the deep Sierra Nevada woods for weeks at a time, where he fed himself by what game he could produce with his rifle. According to his friend Bierstadt and others, Clark hunted bear and deer.

Galen Clark sequoiaGalen Clark, 1908, photo by George King, from a publication by Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

It may sound like fiction, but living deep in the last stand of old growth trees, Galen Clark was told in 1853 by his doctors that he may have only six months to live, yet he survived another fifty seven years. He died in 1910. By then both Sequoia National Park and Yosemite were famous around the world.

Vose20150708 172138 1Advertisement, September 1983

According to Melissa Speidel, author of the forthcoming catalog raisonne on the artist this painting by Bierstadt resurfaced in 1983, when it was sold by the Sprague family of New Hampshire to Vose Galleries of Boston. As one of the three Sequoias paintings known by the artist, it's appearance in Gallery 318, the Early California Gallery of the Crocker Museum constitutes a long overdue homecoming of sorts. 

The Crocker Art Museum, 216 O Street, Sacramento, California 95814


About the Author

Robert Alexander Boyle

Robert Alexander Boyle

 Alexander Boyle is a graduate of Trinity College, Hartford, CT where he majored in History. Prior to graduation he co-authored the seminal book Acid Rain in 1983. Alex has worked for the Metropo...