A Massive 1867 Painting Of Yosemite At St. Johnsbury's Athenaeum Needs Repairs

Aug 19, 2016

Prepare to be overwhelmed by the grandeur of Yosemite when you walk into the the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum. The library, art gallery and museum is a fixture in town, and Albert Bierstadt's painting The Domes of the Yosemite is a striking piece in its collection – but this painting is now nearly 150 years old, and it's showing its age.

Bob Joly, the Athenaeum director, recently talked with Vermont Edition about the painting and why it needs to be taken down and sent away for repairs.

About the painting

The painting, which depicts Yosemite Valley, is located on the gallery's back wall and measures 15 feet wide and 9-and-a-half feet tall, Joly explains.

"It's physically very big," Joly says. "And then the view that it presents is of a wide open valley with Yosemite Falls on one side and Half Dome on the other, and then other peaks across the range."

An interesting phenomenon that Joly describes is that if you look at the painting with cupped hands – like binoculars – it takes on a three-dimensional quality.

About Albert Bierstadt

Bierstadt was born in Germany and grew up on the East Coast. Joly mentions that the artist was considered a "Hudson River painter."

"It was a derogatory term when it was first applied, as if to say, 'You guys just paint the first thing you see when you float up the river,'" Joly explains.

He adds that in addition to painting those New York scenes, Bierstadt and other painters did end up capturing Western landscapes.

"It's physically very big. And then the view that it presents is of a wide open valley with Yosemite Falls on one side and Half Dome on the other, and then other peaks across the range." - St. Johnsbury Athenaeum Director Bob Joly on Albert Bierstadt's The Domes of the Yosemite

"They were really just following the trend of this westward migration," Joly says. "And I think they were so astonished by the sights there, they really wanted to capture them both because they're grand, but also to show them to people on the East Coast, as if to say, 'You won't believe what's out there.'"

How the painting came to Vermont

Bierstadt painted The Domes of the Yosemite in 1867, and according to Joly, the man who had originally commissioned the painting was LeGrand Lockwood, a financier who lived in Connecticut.

Lockwood eventually went bankrupt and died in 1872, around the same time that Horace Fairbanks was building the Athenaeum gallery in Vermont, Joly adds.

"We believe he built the back wall to hold this painting," Joly says, noting that he believes Fairbanks viewed this work as the centerpiece of the collection he was building. While the painting cost Lockwood $25,000, Joly says that Fairbanks purchased it for only $5,100.

"I suspect Fairbanks wasn't competing with a lot of people to buy the painting," Joly says. "It's so big it wasn't going to fit everywhere."

The need for repairs

The Domes of the Yosemite has been on display in the Athenaeum since 1873, Joly says – but now it's about to undergo some maintenance. 

"It'll be 150 years old next year," Joly says. "It is a very large single piece of canvas. It needs to be backed to support the original canvas."

This won't be the first work that's been done to the painting, Joly explains, as in the past it has had varnish replaced, some painting done and gotten an adjusted stretcher.

"It's had work over the years but ... we've got to do major work on it so that it looks great for the next 75 years," Joly says.

The cost, plans and timeline

The repairs won't be cheap, costing about $100,000.

"It will take a lot of fundraising," Joly says. "It will take a direct appeal to some of our supporters who like the Athenaeum and understand our mission and support the works that are here. We will be doing a very broad-based campaign because this is something that is not certainly in our operating budget."

"It will take a lot of fundraising. It will take a direct appeal to some of our supporters who like the Athenaeum and understand our mission and support the works that are here." - Bob Joly

Since it will take time to raise those necessary funds, the painting will remain in the Athenaeum for at least another year.

"It'll be here probably until October or November of 2017," Joly says. "So it is on display. It is pulled away from the wall, so the conservators could get behind it, and we're going to leave it in that position because it sort of helps with the fundraising message."

In addition, because the Athenaeum isn't climate-controlled, Joly says they want to move the painting in a fall month when the environment will be fairly comparable to the conservation studio it'll be relocated to for repairs. Making the Athenaeum itself climate-controlled is also in the plans while the painting is gone for about three or four months, Joly explains.

"An old building like this is hard to bring up to say, newly-built museum standards," Joly says. "But we can improve it a lot, and that's our goal. So that's part of the fundraising package is to climate control the gallery space."

"It'll be here probably until October or November of 2017. So it is on display. It is pulled away from the wall, so the conservators could get behind it, and we're going to leave it in that position because it sort of helps with the fundraising message." - Bob Joly

Because the painting is quite large, moving it when the time comes will be a pretty involved task. Bierstadt's painting will be disassembled, come down onto the floor and then rolled onto a tube in preparation to leave the building.

"The tube is wrapped with a material which protects the painting, the painting is interleaved and then the painting is literally rolled around this gigantic tube," Joly explains. "And then sort of a protective layer is put over the entire painting, and then out it goes."

Joly admits the process of moving the painting from its frame makes him nervous, but he also notes there is some excitement with the endeavor.

"Once it's down on the floor and it's been protected from the issues that it needs to be protected from, then I think it'll be extremely exciting," Joly says. "I mean, literally getting this giant tube out the building will be a sight to see."