Slayton: Bierstadt Painting Comes Home

Jul 19, 2018

Like many Vermonters, one of the state’s most important artworks spent last winter in Florida.

It’s home now, and the spectacular wall-sized painting, “Domes of the Yosemite,” by Albert Bierstadt is on display for the public again at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum.

It’s a huge landscape that’s been the centerpiece of the Athenaeum’s gallery since wealthy industrialist and 36th Governor of Vermont, Horace Fairbanks, bought and donated it to the Athenaeum in 1873.

Last fall, the painting underwent restoration and repair in Miami, and now that it’s back, it looks better than it has in years. Colors are both brighter and more nuanced. Its perspective — the illusion of depth — has been made clearer. And elements unseen for years have re-emerged with the restoration.

What isn’t immediately obvious is how close the painting came to real, permanent damage before it was taken down and restored.

Athenaeum Director Bob Joly says the painting’s deterioration in its custom-made Victorian frame had been accelerating.

“For several years, the painting has looked a little saggy in the summer, and then it would tighten up over the winter,” Joly said. “But three years ago, it didn’t tighten up.”

That was a warning sign, and when professional conservators came to evaluate the painting, they found that the canvas had not only weakened — in one place, it had torn. A rip near the top of the frame threatened its integrity.

“We were told, ‘You’re going to come in some Monday morning and find it (collapsed) on the floor,’” Joly says.

That and a coat of 1950s varnish that had turned gray, dulling the picture’s colors, made restoration imperative. A lengthy process ensued that included raising the $84,000 to fund the process.

It all took time and expertise.

But finally, last October, the huge painting was oh-so-carefully taken out of its frame, rolled onto a cannon-sized tube and shipped to Miami for some expert TLC. The rip was repaired, the old varnish removed, and when it was returned and rehung earlier this month, Joly was holding his breath. Restoration can ruin a painting.

But the grandiose landscape was back, in every conceivable way. It now looks much as it did when Bierstadt signed it, just after the Civil War.

So the Athenaeum — and Vermont — has its treasure back. And Bob Joly believes it’s ready for its next one hundred fifty years.