This painting shows nearly the same view as Looking up the Yosemite Valley, although El Capitan and Cathedral Rocks appear somewhat closer. Bierstadt also shows a broader expanse of the Merced River and mist at the base of Bridalveil Fall. The depths of the valley are less hazy, so it is easier to make out Sentinel Rock and beyond it the tip of Half Dome and Clouds Rest. Details are sharper and the artist has varied the shapes of rocks and trees. The landscape is animated only by the three deer in the foreground, evoking the valley in its primitive state.
Yosemite Valley demonstrates the approach to landscape Bierstadt developed while in Germany. It is a compromise between the objectivity of Realism and the idealism of more traditional landscapes. He began by making on-site sketches in pencil and oil, collecting examples of wildlife and Indian artifacts, and taking photographs. He used these documents for reference in the studio, where he created compositions calculated to give unity and emotional impact. This combination of documentation and studio planning is not unique to Bierstadt, who would have been aware of contemporary German and American landscape painters who worked the same way.
In Yosemite Valley, the general topography is correct, but secondary motifs, like dead stumps in the river and the trees along its banks, are positioned to draw the eye back to the granite landmarks and to contrast with the light mistiness beyond. Such sudden light effects have emotional value, here suggesting the valley as a dreamy apparition, and are quite different from the more gradual lighting preferred by most Hudson River School artists. The juxtaposition of more thickly painted, richly nuanced foregrounds in the Dutch manner with luminous distances reminiscent of Claude Lorrain or Turner (1775-1851) is a convincing method of increasing the illusion of depth; the technique was common in nineteenth-century German painting and found as well in certain works by Bierstadt’s Dusseldorf companions of the 1850s, Gifford, Whittredge, and William Stanley Haseltine (1835-1900).