June 2, 1867
The Domes of Yosemite
Domes Under Fire!!
By Samuel Clemens
-- The "Yosemite Domes" is the name of Bierstadt's last picture.
The art critics here abused it without stint when its exhibition
began, a month ago. They ridiculed it so mercilessly that I thought
it surely could not be worth going to see, and so I staid away.
I went to-day, however, and I think
it is very well worth going to see. It is very beautiful - considerably
more beautiful than the original.
You stand twelve hundred feet above
the valley, and look up it toward the east, with the North Dome
on the left and the South Dome on the right. The rugged mountain
range beyond the latter sweeps round to the right and shuts up the
Valley, and, springing up among the clouds in the distance, you
see one or two great peaks clad in robes of snow.
Well, the bird's-eye view of the level
valley, with its clusters of diminished trees and its little winding
river, is very natural, and familiar, and pleasant to look upon.
The pine trees growing out of clefts
in a bold rock wall, in the right fore ground, are very proper trees,
and the grove of large ones, in the left fore ground, and close
at hand, are a true copy of Nature, and so are the various granite
boulders in the vicinity.
Now, to sum up the picture's merits,
those snow-peaks are correct - they look natural; the valley is
correct and natural; the pine trees clinging to the bluff on the
right, and the grove on the left, and the boulders, are all like
nature; we will assume that the domes and things are drawn accurately.
One sees these things in all sorts
of places throughout California, and under all sorts of circumstances,
and gets so familiar with them that he knows them in a moment when
he sees them in a picture.
I knew them in Bierstadt's picture,
and checked them off one by one, and said "These things are correct
- they all look just as they ought to look, and they all belong
But when I got around to the atmosphere,
I was obliged to say "This man has imported this atmosphere; this
man has surely imported this atmosphere from some foreign country,
because nothing like it was ever seen in California."
I may be mistaken, for all men are
liable to err, but I honestly think I am right. The atmospheric
effects in that picture are startling, are full of variety, and
are charming. It is more the atmosphere of Kingdom-Come than
The time is early morning; the eastern
heavens are filled with shredded clouds, and these afford the excuse
for the dreamy lights and shadows that play about the leftward precipices
and the great dome - a rich blending of softest purple, and gray,
and blue, and brown and white, instead of the bald, glaring expanse
of rocks and earth splotched with cloud-shadows like unpoetical
ink-blots which one ought to see in a Californian mountain picture
when correctly painted.
Some of Mr. Bierstadt's mountains
swim in a lustrous, pearly mist, which is so enchantingly beautiful
that I am sorry the Creator hadn't made it instead of him, so that
it would always remain there.
In the morning, the outlines of mountains
in California, even though they be leagues away, are painfully bold
and sharp, because the atmosphere is so pure and clear - but the
outlines of Mr. Bierstadt's mountains are soft and rounded and velvety,
which is a great improvement on nature.
As a picture, this work must please,
but as a portrait I do not think it will answer. Portraits should
be accurate. We do not want feeling and intelligence smuggled into
the pictured face of an idiot, and we do not want this glorified
atmosphere smuggled into a portrait of the Yosemite, where it surely
does not belong.
I may be wrong, but still I believe
that this atmosphere of Mr. Bierstadt's is altogether too gorgeous.
[Editor's Note: A letter from Samuel Clemens [Mark Twain] published
in The Alta California Newspaper, June 2d, 1867.]
to the Editor