The composition devotes much of the canvas to the sky and a tranquil sea, meaning there is not the same drama as found in some of his other paintings. The bay sweeps across the painting, coming in from the top left, and then out to the bottom left. We do not find much sign of humanity here, with the artist focusing on nature instead. Even the architecture is low and sparse, with just a few buildings dotted around in the distance. Bierstadt produced San Francisco Bay on paperboard and appears here to have avoided too much detail, leaving behind a modern, contemporary style that might be more popular today than it would have been then. One can almost see the much later work of Edward Hopper within this particular piece.
This painting is believed to have been bequethed to the institution by Frank McClure, who presumably was a local collector. Many of the artist's paintings were sold privately at the time but as his reputation soared, many would choose to donate these pieces to local galleries and museums so that more of the public could see and enjoy them themselves. There is a national significance to the work of this artist, and so it is important that as many of his paintings are on view to the public as possible. He helped to tell the world about the beauty of the American countryside, as well as indicating to others of the qualities to be found within American art too. Many of the scenes that he captured have remained untouched all these years later, particularly in regards the more wild spots that he found on his explorations.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum features a wonderful selection of American artists, covering a good variety of different movements and periods. It essentially tracks the full history of this region's cultural offering, with a particular focus on the past few centuries. Besides Bierstadt, other names to look out for here include the likes of Georgia O'Keeffe, John Singer Sargent, Albert Pinkham Ryder and Thomas Moran. The full inventory list runs into the many thousands of items, and there is something here to suit pretty much any taste, with regular exhibitions helping to keep its display fresh and interesting to its many repeat visitors.