The Amon Carter Museum of American Art’s collection includes over 2,000 artworks celebrating the majesty of the United States’ national parks. These are but a few of many.
On August 25, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that would create the National Park Service, making 2016 their centennial year. Artists have captured the majesty of the places that became the parks often long before those spaces were designated as national treasures. Throughout history, the brushstrokes of their paintings and the developed chemistry of their photographs have been instrumental in introducing Americans to the dramatic vistas of the nation they call home. Their romantic representations of nature’s wonder often omit traces of the tourists who arrived by the Transcontinental Railroad, stagecoach, car, or bus.
Laura Gilpin once wrote of her photographic adventures to places such as Bryce Canyon in Southern Utah, “I . . . am willing to drive many miles, expose a lot of film, wait untold hours, camp out to be somewhere at sunrise, make many return trips to get what I am after."
She hiked, drove, and flew thousands of miles across the Southwest to capture its majesty.
Cowboy artist Charles Russell built a summer cabin on Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park in Montana for himself in 1905. He named it Bull Head Lodge after his signature that features a bull skull. He played host to many visiting artists who made the scenery of the park the subject of their work.
In 1871, artist Thomas Moran was invited by Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the U.S. Geological Survey, to join his expedition team into the unexplored Yellowstone region.
During forty days of journeying, Moran wrote about and sketched more than thirty different sites. His artworks, along with photographs produced by survey photographer William Henry Jackson, encouraged Congress to establish Yellowstone as a national park in 1872.
Yellowstone had a significant influence on Moran. His first national recognition, as well as his first major financial success, came from his depictions of Yellowstone, encouraging him to sign some of his work “T-Y-M,” which stood for Thomas "Yellowstone" Moran.
These chromolithographs were color prints created to distribute his work to a larger public.
In 1855, a small group of entrepreneurs accompanied by artist Thomas Ayres were among the first tourists to visit Yosemite. The paintings, drawings, articles in illustrated periodicals, and lithographic prints Ayres created after his trip served to promote tourism to the area. His works were distributed nationally, and art exhibitions of his drawings provided the public with some of the first artistic representations of Yosemite’s natural wonders.
Carleton Watkins ventured west in 1849 to try his luck as a gold prospector. Instead, he found success as a photographer, making his first trip to photograph Yosemite in 1861.
Despite the challenges of carrying his heavy sixteen-by-twenty-one-inch view camera, glass plates, and processing equipment into the wilderness by mule, he created stunning, large-scale photographs that set the standard for his contemporaries and helped push photography into the realm of fine art.
His work also encouraged President Lincoln to pass the Yosemite Grant in 1864. This legislation marked the first time that the federal government set aside land for preservation and public use. The following year, a mountain in the park was named in honor of Watkins.
Watkins’s photographs captured painter Albert Bierstadt’s attention and inspired his travels to California. “We are now in the Garden of Eden. . .” Bierstadt wrote of Yosemite, “the most magnificent place I was ever in.”
Time and again, Bierstadt painted dramatic, monumental canvases of Yosemite’s vast valleys and towering crags, and his paintings and popular lithographs were enthusiastically received by a wide audience. In response to his rendering of the brilliant, golden light of the valley floor, one critic remarked, “It looks as if it was painted in an Eldorado, in a distant land of gold; heard of in song and story; dreamed of but never seen. Yet it is real.”
Produced by Maggie Adler, Associate Curator with assistance from Peggy Sell and Steve Watson at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art
All artworks from the collection of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas.