Prized Bierstadt painting returns home after restoration


‘The Domes of Yosemite’ by Albert Bierstadt, oil on canvas, 1867, prior to the restoration. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

JOHNSBURY, Vt. (AP) – Nearly 10 months after it was sent to Miami for a major restoration project, St. Johnsbury Athenaeum’s most-prized painting, The Domes of Yosemite, has come home.

The painting, by Albert Bierstadt, nearly 150 years old, had a significant tear along its top edge, some 4½ feet long, and was also rippling from the top, and the damage was jeopardizing the prized work, said Athenaeum Director Bob Joly on Thursday.

The Domes of Yosemite has long dominated the gallery, which also features a collection of American and European artists’ work from the late 18th century to the middle 19th century, marble sculptures and more, most originals.

The Domes, as it’s referred to, is 10 feet by 15 feet and is the center stage of the gallery.

Since October, the frame in which The Domes has hung for generations has been blank, awaiting its return.

The painting was rehung this Monday morning.

It was restored in Miami, Florida, at ArtCare Conservation ( and was recently on exhibit at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida, after the conservation work was completed.

Charles Hosmer Morse, the industrialist and philanthropist for whom the Morse museum is named, was a native of St. Johnsbury.

A charitable foundation named in honor of his daughter, The Elizabeth Morse Genius Foundation, has provided grants to Morse’s school, the St. Johnsbury Academy. The school’s art center is named for him. The foundation also provided $100,000 toward the Athenaeum’s Domes Project.

Funds were raised to help cover the cost of the restoration of the painting and the HVAC system needed to upgrade the art gallery for its return, a $300,000 undertaking in all, said Joly on Thursday. Other work also has included structural repairs to a gallery viewing balcony and conservation of frames in the collection.

Scott Davis, development officer for the Athenaeum, was videotaping the installation process as the conservators worked to prepare the massive frame structure for the painting to be hung once again.

Davis had earlier recorded the steps taken to remove the celebrated painting when it was removed and shipped from the Athenaeum for the first time since it had come to St. Johnsbury; a video of that process was available for Athenaeum visitors to see and to help explain the huge empty frame in the center of the gallery for nearly the past year.

An open house will be held Saturday and Sunday to celebrate the return of The Domes. Joly will deliver a talk about the undertaking and share the museum’s excitement at the restored painting behind home and in such great condition.

The open house on Saturday is from 4-7 p.m. and on Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Joly will speak about the painting and its restoration on Saturday at 4:30 and 6 p.m., and on Sunday at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.

Besides the repairs and restoration to the painting, it also has now been carefully nailed to the stretcher or frame of wooden boards it will be displayed upon; an old lacing system which threaded string through a series of grommets or holes along the wooden frame was used with the painting before and is something the conservation company has never seen before.

One staffer had seen a similar system at the Naval Museum in the United Kingdom, said ArtCare Conservation President Rustin Levenson, but otherwise, the system is considered unique.

For that reason, Joly said, the museum was urged to keep the old lacing system behind the framed painting as an archive of its past.

“We could have taken pictures of it, and thrown it away,” but they didn’t, said Joly of the unusual lacing system. He said it’s suspected because the painting was moved a handful of times before it found its home in St. Johnsbury that perhaps having it more mobile through being sewn to the frame rather than fastened to it was done.

Joly said the varnish on the painting’s surface had turned whiteish and changed the colors of the painting, so it looked misty.

With the varnish cleaned from the painting, and now that it’s been fully restored, “It looks like a different painting,” he said. “There is so much more depth and color, I think people haven’t seen it the way (artist Bierstadt) meant it to be for generations,” because of how the varnish had muted the original painting.

“It is so exciting to have it back,” said Joly. He said as the truck made its way north with the precious cargo on Wednesday he was sending out messages about where the painting was on its trip home, and finally, about 8:15 p.m., his bulletin said, “The Domes is back in the building!”

While Levenson and her crew were restoring the painting, she said they came across one tiny bird painted onto a dead branch of a tree; for years, the museum staff have told people there was not a living animal or person in the painting, said Joly, and now they know there is a singular bird.

The painting is “without a doubt” the most treasured in the collection, said Davis, “It means so much not just to the Athenaeum, but to the Town of St. Johnsbury.”

“This was the first time it had left in (nearly) 150 years,” he said.

A detailed explanation of the painting’s history and the project to restore it are posted on the Athenaeum’s website.

“Originally commissioned for $25,000 for the Connecticut home of American financier Legrand Lockwood, The Domes was showcased in New York City, Philadelphia, and Boston before its installation in Lockwood’s mansion,” the Athenaeum information continues. “The Domes found its way to St. Johnsbury when Horace Fairbanks purchased it at auction in 1872. The painting received a warm reception in St. Johnsbury, touted as ‘the very best work of this celebrated artist’ in the St. Johnsbury Caledonian.”


By AMY ASH NIXON, Caledonian-Record


Information from: The Caledonian-Record,

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