Thomas Moran Painting Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the Smithsonian Department of the Interior. Artists and conservation contribute to the National Park system located in the Smithsonian

Artists and Conservation of National Parks

by | Feb 11, 2021 | Destinations, National Parks, North America, Travel and Education, Uncategorized, US geographical paintings

Zoroaster Peak
Zoroaster Peak detail

Art after the Civil War

After the exhausting and vicious Civil War In the late half of the nineteenth century, a group of artists played an indispensable role in providing an impressive, visual portfolio of the West’s majesty. As a matter of fact, these artists traveled with westward expeditions to visually document these unexplored, grand places of nature. As a result, artists’ and conservation efforts was a natural combined force. Indeed, they created expressive, beautiful paintings and photos representing their ideal of what they saw. 

How artists helped influence conservation in America

Because of this, these artists were elemental in helping heal the nation from the fatigue of war. Without a doubt, a front runner was the pioneering photographer Carleton Watkins (1829–1916) and his vast portfolio of western landscapes. Soon, other artists followed and provided visual representations of the magnificence of the American West. While most Americans could not imagine the beauty and drama of western landscapes artists such as Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt brought them to life. Actually, these two artists were inspired by Watkins. Also, they traveled west and documented what they saw in incredible paintings and drawings. In short, the’ visions and expressions of these artists, along with the artists’ and conservation ideals sparked the public to take notice. 

Albert Bierstadt German American artist painting of Yosemite Valley an example of artist and conservation of places
Albert Bierstadt German American artist painting of Yosemite Valley

Idealized Visions

Furthermore, their spectacular representations proved to be key in offering the American people hope and a dream of a grand experience of their own. In the end, Americans could not have imagined these dramatic, beautiful places without skilled artists such as Thomas Moran (1837-1926), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), photographer Carleton Watkins (1829-1916), and painter-photographer William Henry Jackson 1843-1942.

What is more, their inspiring, panoramic landscapes and photos expressed the nature, environment, and indigenous people of the West through romanticized points of view. As well, they made their art accessible to the public when they returned home.

The Hudson River School

It’s well known that many of these artists were inspired by and were members of the Hudson River School of Art. The founder was artist Thomas Cole. Furthermore, he was the first to make the landscape genre popular in about 1825. Soon after, art representing natural wonders was sought by collectors. Thus, was the beginning of Artists and conservation ideals represented through their paintings.

“The thoroughly American branch of painting… is the landscape. It surpasses all others in popular favor, and may be said to have reached the dignity of a distinct school.”  James Jackson Jarves, 1864

Thomas Cole the founder of the Hudson River School

Thomas Cole Painting The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Thomas Cole Painting The Metropolitan Museum of Art Department: Am. Paintings / Sculpture Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: Working Date: photography by mma, DT208249.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 8_6_09

Not only that, art represented by the Hudson River School celebrated and idealized nature. In fact, these artists did not represent or give importance to artificial things. What is more, they used symbolism to express their concern for nature’s fragility and its potential exploitation by man.

Artists of The Hudson River School sought to re-create the majesty and spirituality of the natural world. Additionally, they hoped to inspire admiration and appreciation for its beauty. As a result, their artworks reflected a changing attitude toward nature and sprouted a conservation ethic in America. Essentially, their works shaped how viewers perceived these magnificent places in nature. Thus, fostering the movement to conserve the natural world. 

The artists and the conservation Movement 1850-1920

Tower Falls and Sulphur Mountain, Yellowstone

The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920 documents the movement’s historical formation and cultural foundations. Its mission was to conserve and protect America’s natural heritage through books, pamphlets, government documents, manuscripts, prints, photographs, and motion picture footage drawn from the Library of Congress collections.

As was stated, many of these artists were associated with the American Conservation Movement. To be sure, their subject matter was generally the natural environment. Before the 1820s, American artists painted portraits and works that depicted important historical events and people. Few painters attempted landscape painting. 

While at the same time these artists were venturing to sustain our natural wonders through visual representation, writers such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson revered nature through the written word. Artists and conservation, both visual and literary, were a naturally evolving and influential force.

Thomas Moran a fore-runner in artists and conservation efforts in the U. S.

The artist Thomas Moran produced paintings from sketches he made while accompanying major expeditions to the American West. In fact, In 1871, Moran accompanied Hayden’s geological and geographical survey of the Western Territories. This took him to Yellowstone. Later, In 1873, Moran joined John Wesley Powell’s exploration of the Colorado River Basin, where he saw and traveled through the Grand Canyon.

It’s important to note that expedition leaders found it critical to include artists in these survey explorations. Their sketches, photographs, and paintings added visual support to their collected data. Furthermore, they lent visual interest to the accounts in scientific journals and official reports to Congress. On a final note, the impact of their paintings and photos was not even known until some time later.

Thomas Moran Painting Chasm of the Colorado in the Smithsonian Department of the Interior
Thomas Moran Painting Chasm of the Colorado in the Smithsonian Department of the Interior

At the Department of the Interior: Thomas Moran and the Big Pictures

Recently, two of Moran’s most iconic paintings were returned to the Department of the Interior Museum in Washington DC after being on loan to other museums in the 1960s. The titles of these works are “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1872) and “The Chasm of the Colorado” (1873-1874). They are also monumental in size (approximately 8×14 feet), which is fitting given the importance they gave to the subject matter of their paintings.

The U.S. Congress purchased these two large landscape paintings in the early 1870s. Undoubtedly, they capture the natural beauty of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon. As well, their sizes make a huge impact on anyone who sees them. Without a doubt, these paintings played an important role in the history of our nation’s public lands. In the end, they encouraged discourse about public lands and influenced the creation of America’s national parks. Their obvious impact reinforced the reality of the role of artists and conservation efforts which continues today.

Thomas Moran Painting Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the Smithsonian Department of the Interior.  Artists and conservation contribute to the National Park system located in the Smithsonian
Thomas Moran Painting Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in the Smithsonian Department of the Interior

The return of Moran’s paintings

As well, It is appropriate that the paintings have been returned. In fact, during your visit to Washington D.C., you should plan to see these important pieces of our American heritage at the Department of the Interior.

Thomas Moran’s extraordinary paintings captured unusual terrain, unique features of nature, and masterfully created drama. He accomplishes this through his skillful use of light, shadows, color, and composition. As a gifted illustrator and artist, he admired English artist John M. W. Turner. Turner’s influence is apparent in Moran’s work. 

In the end, The government designated important locations in America as National Parks for the people to enjoy. These include the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite. Thomas Moran’s numerous and stunning paintings were instrumental in influencing this outcome.

Thomas Moran (1837-1926); Cliffs of Green River; 1874; Oil on canvas; Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas

Albert Bierstadt

Another important member of the Hudson River School was Albert Bierstadt. Bierstadt, a German immigrant, arriving here as a child, became one of the American West’s great painters. He is probably best known for his dramatic use of light and his romanticized western landscapes. Not only that, but Bierstadt’s beautiful paintings inspired many Americans to explore the western frontier. He was also able to capture the glowing light, translucent skies, and sweeping panoramas of the West on his large canvases. Furthermore, his important paintings include “Domes of Yosemite,” “In the Yosemite Valley,” and “Merced River and Cathedral rocks.” 

Storm in the Mountains by Albert Bierstadt Museum of Fine Art Boston
Storm in the Mountains by Albert Bierstadt Museum of Fine Art Boston

How these artists’ paintings influenced Congress

Church (another influential artist), Moran, and Bierstadt all painted enormous canvases of dramatic natural scenes in the American West. All were some of America’s best-known and most successful landscape painters.

Their monumental Western landscape paintings, sketches, and photographs were displayed in Congress’s Washington DC halls. As can be surmised, as Congress members passed these daily, they obviously played a pivotal role in the passing of laws requiring that many of these lands be set aside and protected for all citizens’ future enjoyment. 

In the end, the joining of artistic, literary, and political attention to America’s scenic beauty laid the foundation for the creation of the first National Parks. In 1872, Yellowstone became the first, signifying a commitment to conservation stewardship as a national value.

Cliff Dwellers 1894 oil painting by Thomas Moran Artists and conservation contribute to the National Parks
Cliff Dwellers 1894 oil painting by Thomas Moran

America’s Southwest

On a further note, the sweeping landscapes of the Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah were alluring to painters and photographers. The remarkable quality of the southwestern light and its interaction with the landscape captivated them. Many artists from Eastern and even European cities were drawn to this blending of cultures and the southwest’s vast light-filled vistas. Ultimately, their canvases and photographic prints framed the big skies, mesas, and canyons while interpreting its unique beauty, intense color, and lovely landscapes. In summary, artists’ influence in conservation efforts has been important from the country’s early days to the present.

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