The Eyes

The Eyes

Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Splendor and Art of the U.S. National Parks

In celebration of National Park Week, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on some of the artwork that glorifies the grandeur and spectacular geography in a few of the United States national parks. There are 84 million acres of iconic, treasured, and sacred places protected in America’s over 400 national parks. Some of these early paintings and illustrations would later help convince Congress to set aside America's first national parks.

For over 150 years, remarkable individuals whose vision, dedication, sacrifice—and sometimes even obsession—helped to create America's national parks into a cohesive national park system. They came from all walks of life, rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs. With artists making their way West after the Civil War, they were inspired to paint and draw the splendor and largess of this vastly unexplored and untouched land that reached skyward far into the clouds and beyond.

In 1871, Thomas Moran boarded a train taking him to the far reaches of the western frontier. He had been asked to illustrate a magazine article describing a wondrous region in Wyoming called Yellowstone—rumored to contain steam-spewing geysers, boiling hot springs, and bubbling mud pots. Eager to be the first artist to record these astonishing natural wonders, Moran quickly made plans to travel west. Immediately upon his return home to Philadelphia, he began producing the paintings that would change the course of his career.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone | Thomas Moran
Oil on Canvas | 96 1/2 in. x 168 3/8 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Albert Bierstadt’s beautifully crafted paintings played to a market eager for spectacular views of the nation’s frontiers. Bierstadt was a hardworking entrepreneur who had grown rich pairing his artistic skill with a talent for self-promotion. The unveiling of one of his canvases was a theatrical event. He sold tickets and planted news stories. A “great picture” was elaborately framed and installed in a room with carefully controlled lighting. At the appointed time, the work was revealed to thunderous applause.

Among the Sierra Nevada, California | Albert Bierstadt
Oil on Canvas | 72 in. x 120 1/8 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Into the 20th century, popularity of the national parks grew exponentially with the onslaught of Americans traveling across country in their newly purchased automobiles. This included the accessibility of artists to more easily reach these bastions of inspiration.

One of those artists who continued to find inspiration in one of the national parks was Chiura Obata. A teacher at University of California, Berkeley, Obata was a Japanese immigrant and renowned artist who spent much of his career painting landscapes of Yosemite National Park.

During World War II, Obata and his family were relocated to an internment camp in Topaz, Utah, where he founded the Topaz Art School and encouraged his fellow prisoners to look to nature, as he did, for strength during the "intolerable sin" of their incarceration. After the war, he returned to teaching and took many trips with the Sierra Club to paint landscapes.

El Capitán | Chiura Obata
Color Woodcut on Paper Image | 15 5/8 in. x 11 in.
Smithsonian American Art Museum
And, finally, an artist with whom we are most familiar today through his breathtaking photographs, Ansel Adams, became an influential force in the designation of Kings Canyon as a national park.

Adams' 1938 book, Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, captivated President Franklin Roosevelt after Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes showed it to the president. Roosevelt would not only designate Kings Canyon as a national park in 1940, but as a roadless park, leaving it completely undeveloped. Roosevelt's only access to the splendor of Kings Canyon would be through Adams' photography. 

Adams' influence on the national parks was not limited to his efforts in Kings Canyon. His relationship with Ickes led to a contract with the Department of the Interior in 1941. Over the course of eight years, Adams traveled to every national park except the Everglades, capturing thousands of spectacular images for prominent display in Washington.

NOTE:  Explore the fascinating history through the six-part documentary, The National Parks: America's Best Idea


James Brock said...

Your writing, art is brilliant! :-) TY

Cary Knox said...

Thank you!