Our interest in art can be traced directly to our childhood enthusiasm for stamp-collecting, which taught us that Winslow Homer, James Whistler, and Frederic Remington were the world’s finest artists — why else would the United States Post Office have put engravings of their works on stamps? We especially liked the 1962 stamp that showed Homer’s “Breezing Up” (since then we’ve seen the original at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.). To this day, Homer remains our favorite American artist. (See the Emsworth post on Whistler’s Mother.)
Nowadays we take a more casual interest in commemorative stamps, which after all are not beautifully engraved as they used to be. But Emsworth usually takes notice on the rare occasions on which the Postal Service decides to honor an artist. Currently, you can buy not one, but two tiny reproductions of art at the Post Office for 42 cents. This year’s “religious” Christmas stamp shows a portion of Sandro Botticelli’s “Virgin and Child With the Young John the Baptist,” painted around 1490.
The other “art” stamp at the Post Office commemorates the 19th-century American artist Albert Bierstadt, who specialized in paintings of the American West, and who has become a favorite. The image on the stamp is “Valley of the Yosemite,” painted in 1864, and it’s a good example of Bierstadt’s style, but its choice is a bit surprising. The original, which is in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, is a relatively small painting, unlike the grand, large-scale paintings that made Bierstadt famous, like the panoramic, ten-foot-wide, endlessly detailed “The Rocky Mountains, Landers Peak,” in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Post Office’s choice, “Valley of the Yosemite,” is only about 14 by 22 inches and not especially well known.
Well, of course, we have a Bierstadt right here in Rochester. The Memorial Art Gallery’s picture, “The Sierras Near Lake Tahoe, California,” is also a western scene. It too is a modest-scale painting, only a little bigger than the one on the new stamp.
But my favorite Bierstadt isn’t either a Rocky Mountain scene or a ten-foot-wide panorama; it’s a picture of seals sporting and frolicking on an island off the California coast. Seal Rock is in Connecticut at the New Britain Museum of American Art.