Merced River in the Yosemite Valley, Oil on canvas, 1876
Merced River in the Yosemite Valley is one of the most striking selections from SAM’s collection of American Romantic Landscape paintings. Stylistically, this work belongs to the Hudson River School – a mid-19th century American art movement that focused on the romantic idea of nature and encouraged a positive relationship between man and the natural world. This ideology evolved during a time when the political borders of the United States were ever-expanding thanks to the realization of “manifest destiny.” As the American west was largely uncharted territory until this point in history, new images (such as this one) that reflected majestic natural phenomenon proved extremely popular for art collectors back east. Adhering to the romanticized or idealized perception of nature, Merced River in the Yosemite Valley, although based on a real location, is indeed a compilation of various sites seamlessly morphed into one setting by the artist and his imagination.
As was often the case with American Romantic Landscapes, Gilbert Munger (1837-1903) likely took sketches of a number of landforms during his expedition in the west. Upon returning to his studio in the east, these rough sketches would have been reformulated and rearranged by the artist several times before arriving at the finalized version we see today. The omnipresent white light that permeates the scene appears to be of heavenly origin, and it softly models and defines all physical forms below. The might and power of the grandiose mountains are complimented by the vast waters that surround them and reflect the sky above. This reflection not only exponentially increases the amount of space and depth within the scene, but also serves to convey to the viewer the sheer scale of Mother Nature, and thereby its sublime qualities. The principal emotion transmitted through this work is that of overwhelming size and beauty – an abstract idea that 19th century artists found to be physically manifested in the landforms of the American west.