click to enlarge ‘The Domes of the Yosemite’ (1867) by Albert Bierstadt

Photo courtesy Morse Museum

‘The Domes of the Yosemite’ (1867) by Albert Bierstadt

Albert Bierstadt's massive 'Domes of the Yosemite' may be the biggest thing to happen to the Morse in years 

I recently returned from my annual research trip to Anaheim, where I managed to escape the theme parks long enough to visit Los Angeles' J. Paul Getty Museum. The Getty Center is famous as one of America's finest art institutions, and its campus is certainly stunning, with Richard Meier's stark modernist architecture offset by elaborate landscaping and priceless views of California's most valuable real estate. The only problem is that Getty, the world's wealthiest man, was also a notorious cheapskate (see the recent film and TV series about his refusal to pay ransom for his kidnapped grandson), so his collection is crammed with second-rate works by the students of better-known artists.

By contrast, while our museums here in Orlando may lack the Getty's multibillion-dollar endowment, at least they've learned the value of quality over quantity. Better yet, they've shown that huge things can come in small packages, as the current star of the Morse Museum proves. The intimate Park Avenue institution may look modest from the outside, but its current exhibition of "The Domes of the Yosemite" by Albert Bierstadt is one of the biggest art events – literally and metaphorically – to hit Winter Park in years.

Bierstadt, who lived from 1830 to 1902, created his monumental 10-foot-wide by 15-foot-tall landscape in 1867 as a commission for a Connecticut financier's rotunda, but it has been displayed since 1873 at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum in Vermont. That century and a half of time and gravity took their toll, dulling and distorting the canvas to the point where the artist's autograph was no longer visible. But then, because industrialist-philanthropist Charles Hosmer Morse was a native of St. Johnsbury, his namesake foundation contributed $100,000 toward having the painting sent to ArtCare Conservation Studio in Miami, where it was painstakingly restored over many months.

In February, "The Domes of the Yosemite" made its post-conservation debut at the Morse, in its first public appearance outside the Athenaeum in 145 years. To be displayed here, it had to be rolled up like an enormous rug, then suspended on a custom-built support that is attached to the wall; the frame visible around the painting is only a skirt that doesn't actually touch the canvas.

Bierstadt's view of Yosemite Falls and the iconic Half Dome rock formation dominates the wall of the gallery where it resides, flanked by a few of the illuminated Tiffany stained glass windows that the Morse is best known for, along with other contemporaneous 19th-century objects.

The depiction, which was influenced by the Hudson River school of American painting, is notable for the naturalistic detail of the mountainous landscape – which Bierstadt sketched and photographed in person, back in the pre-railroad era when visiting Yosemite required weeks of stagecoach travel – and the heavenly lighting that's been revealed by the removal of old varnish. But what strikes the viewer first and foremost is its overwhelming enormity: At nearly 150 square feet, it's larger than some rooms I've lived in.

That size played a key role in making "The Domes of the Yosemite" one of the most famous artworks of its age. Its tour of New York City, Philadelphia and Boston in the late 1860s gave post-Civil War audiences on the East Coast their first view of the expanding American West. Mark Twain, like many critics of the day, gave the work a mixed review, saying it was "very well worth going to see," but adding that "as a portrait I do not think it will answer. Portraits should be accurate [and] I believe that this atmosphere of Mr. Bierstadt's is altogether too gorgeous." Even if you agree that the Yosemite landscape isn't as gorgeous as the painting makes it look (and who would?), it's easy to understand how audiences of the time could stare into "The Domes of the Yosemite" for hours, falling into its seemingly endless depth like an IMAX 3-D image.

Bierstadt's masterpiece will only be on display at the Morse through July 8 before it returns to Vermont, and it's unlikely to return to Orlando in our lifetimes. The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, and admission is only $6 for adults, with discounts for students and seniors. But if you attend the season's final free Friday night event on April 27, you can enjoy the painting sans admission fee, along with music from the Paint It Black Orchestra and a complimentary curator tour of Louis Comfort Tiffany's Laurelton Hall exhibit. And free Family Tours of the landscape gallery start on June 19; space is limited, so register in advance at morsemuseum.org.

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