Lives of a Painting

  • October 02, 2011 11:28

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Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) - Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California - 64 1/2 x 96 1/2 in
Birmingham Museum of Art
Burning of the Crosby Opera House, Great Chicago Fire, 1871

From one owner to another, from exhibition to auction, through years of adulation and years of neglect, a painting can endure a life of its own. Some lives are more exciting than others.

Such is the case with Albert Bierstadt’s Looking Down Yosemite Valley, California, a monumental work measuring over five feet by eight feet in the collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art. How it arrived at the Alabama museum is a story involving shady finances, public charity, and a historic escape from destruction.

Bierstadt painted Looking Down Yosemite Valley in 1865 toward the end of the Civil War. Its New York debut that spring was postponed by the assassination of President Lincoln, but not long after it was sold to Chicago distiller Uranus Crosby for the appropriately colossal sum of $20,000.

Crosby planned to install the painting as the star of his art collection in his newly-built opera house in Chicago. However, after the cost of building and running the opera house proved overwhelming, Bierstadt’s work became a pawn in a nationally-advertised lottery that Crosby’s banker-friends devised to restore his finances.

Crosby toured Yosemite from city to city to promote the lottery, offering it as second prize (first prize was the opera house itself). Happily for him, the winning ticket for the Bierstadt went unsold.

The first-prize winner conveniently sold the opera house back to Crosby, who in turn sold it and the art collection to his cousin Albert. Also a distiller who enjoyed the trappings of wealth, Albert Crosby kept the art ensconced in the opera house for the delight of Chicago society.

Yet the elegance of its surroundings proved insecure. On the evening of October 8, 1871, a small fire in a barn on DeKoven Street turned into a raging inferno that engulfed the city.

With the flaming front of the Great Chicago Fire advancing toward the opera house, the superintendent of the building led a last-minute attempt to rescue the art.

As related by the book, “Crosby’s Opera House: Symbol of Chicago’s Cultural Awakening,” by Eugene H. Cropsey, dozens of artworks were carried from the gallery and stacked in the entranceway. In the midst of the smoky chaos, “drunken thieves” managed to steal two small paintings before the trove could be loaded onto a horse-drawn truck and hauled away amidst “sparks and burning embers.” The opera house was destroyed, but the Bierstadt was saved.

Still in the collection of Albert Crosby, Yosemite’s last known Chicago sighting came at the Art Institute in the mid-1880s. Then it seemingly vanished for forty years.

However, according to the book by Eugene Cropsey (who is also the great-great-grandson of Albert Crosby), the painting had departed for a well-deserved vacation.

Albert and his wife Georgia apparently had become tired of Chicago. In 1887, after a European sojourn, they moved to a newly-built mansion on Crosby family property at Brewster, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod. Part of the mansion included a two-story brick art gallery to house Yosemite and the rest of their collection.

It was perhaps also expedient that, in moving to Cape Cod, Albert Crosby was able to leave behind a small mountain of unpaid debt. His Midwestern lenders thought he had fled to Europe. It wasn’t so easy to track someone down in the nineteenth century.

In 1895, however, an Indiana judge familiar with the Crosby case happened to spend his vacation on the Cape. His friends brought him to the local art gallery to see the fine paintings. He spotted Looking Down Yosemite Valley, and made the connection. Pretty soon Albert Crosby found himself in court on the wrong end of a half-million dollar lien by the city of Chicago.

In 1899 he declared bankruptcy. Long before the courts caught up with him, however, Albert had shrewdly transferred ownership of his material possessions to his wife. The Brewster mansion, the Bierstadt, and the rest of the art went untouched.

Albert Crosby died in 1906. Georgia apparently kept Yosemite in the Cape Cod mansion for the rest of her life. After she died in 1928, it made its way back to Chicago where it was sold at auction for pennies on the dollar.

Thus in obscurity did a great painting begin a new life.

Its new owners hailed from Birmingham, where in an act of civic generosity they gave the landscape to the Birmingham Public Library (the Museum of Art was not founded until 1951). There it rested in public view for decades, tarnished and tired, while a distant art world revolved in thrall to abstraction.

Then in 1974, with historical paintings of the Hudson River School regaining favor, a sharp-eyed curator from the museum spotted the landscape hanging in the library and comprehended its significance.

The painting was cleaned, revealing Bierstadt’s signature and date, and placed on long-term loan to the Birmingham Museum of Art. In 1991 the loan became a permanent gift. In 2002, Looking Down Yosemite Valley traveled to London as part of the exhibition, “American Sublime”.

Earlier this year the massive wood frame—original to the painting—was cleaned, likely for the first time. As recounted in a July 24 article in The Birmingham News, the conservator found the frame covered in a thin, telltale layer of black soot—the lingering memory of a fiery night 140 years ago.

In 2012-13 it will travel to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the upcoming exhibition “The Civil War and American Art.” There it will look back to the earliest days of its life, before Cape Cod, the Chicago Fire, and the Crosbys, to a hopeful glow at the end of a national calamity.


"GAVE FORTUNE TO HIS WIFE; So Albert Crosby Says He Possesses Only Some "Old Clothes." EXAMINATION IN BANKRUPTCY Creditors in Indiana Locate Him Through a Famous Painting in a Palatial Home on Cape Cod." The New York Times 12 July 1899.

Cropsey, Eugene H. Crosby's Opera House: Symbol of Chicago's Cultural Awakening. Madison N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 1999.

Huebner, Michael. "Birmingham Museum of Art's Bierstadt Painting Set to Travel to Smithsonian, Met, minus Chicago Fire Residue." The Birmingham News 24 July 2011.

Wilton, Andrew, and Tim Barringer. American Sublime: Landscape Painting in the United States, 1820-1880. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2002. pp. 140, 232

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Hudson River School Stories

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Behind-the-scenes vignettes of the Hudson River School, culled from the increasing abundance of online archival sources.

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