Thomas Hill was one of America’s most famous 19th century landscape painters, especially of panoramic views of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Hill was often referred to as the “Artist of Yosemite”. He received his formal artistic training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before moving to San Francisco in 1861. He visited Yosemite for the first time in 1865 and then traveled to Paris for two years of study. Back in California in the 1870s, Hill became Albert Bierstadt’s chief rival as the foremost painter of majestic Western scenery. During his lifetime Hill’s paintings were favorably received in late 19th century California, often selling for $10,000, a large sum in those days. Many millionaires from San Francisco including society figures as well as such business and railroad tycoons as E.B. Crocker, William Ralston, William Sharon, D.O. Mills and Leland Stanford were counted amongst his patrons. Hill’s Yosemite Valley (from Below Sentinel Dome, As Seen from Artist’s Point (Collection of the Oakland Museum) was one of twelve American paintings out of about four hundred candidates to be awarded a bronze medal at the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 by an international jury. In January 1886, the art critic of the San Franciscan praised a Hill Yosemite panorama as “a picture nobly conceived and royally executed. Whosoever looks upon it feels lifted for the moment above the petty interests and vexations of every-day life.”
It is interesting to note that Hill’s 1865 View of the Yosemite Valley on loan from the New York Historical Society served as the backdrop for the Head Table at Barack Obama’s 2009 Presidential Inaugural Luncheon. The painting was chosen because it represents the 1864 Lincoln signing of the Yosemite Grant, which set aside Yosemite Valley as a public reserve, the first time the federal government had taken such an action.
homas Hill's A Waterfall in the Sierras presents a stunning depiction of a majestic Yosemite waterfall, likely the famous 617-foot Bridalveil Fall. The Ahwahneechee tribe called this waterfall Pohono-meaning Spirit of the Puffing Wind-and believed that it was home to a vengeful spirit of the same name. Native American legend held that one must not look directly into the waterfall, lest he or she be cursed, but also that inhaling the mist from the waterfall would improve one's chances of marriage. Thomas Hill painted several versions of this waterfall, including his canvas Bridal Veil Falls (left). While this example depicts the waterfall awash with bright morning sunlight and flowing lightly, A Waterfall in the Sierras showcases it in the waning light of the afternoon, its water traveling so forcefully that its stream and spray push nearly sideways. One can almost feel the "puffing wind" of ancient legend. Hill's landscapes reflect his deep understanding of nature; his precise, accurate, and rapidly executed compositions were often painted en plein air and at the exact location of his subject. It is interesting to note that one of Hill's paintings of Bridalveil Falls, completed in 1895, sits in the collection of the White House and White House Historical Association.
Bonham's, San Francisco, June 11, 2003
Private Collection, acquired from the above