Talk about suffering for art. Philadelphia painter Thomas Moran had barely sat in a saddle in his life. But here he was, urging a mule over the Rockies, on assignment from the U.S. Geological Survey to capture on canvas the rumored wonders of Yellowstone.
Moran’s journey in the summer of 1871 was a triumph. He painted hot springs, he painted geysers, he painted The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, one of the masterpieces of American landscape art. His works helped convince Congress to set aside Yellowstone as the world’s first national park the following year.
Still, Moran had raised a haunting aesthetic conundrum. When he first set eyes on Yellowstone’s great canyon, he deemed it “beyond the reach of human art.”
Call it the greatest of American challenges— making art that can stand alongside the glories that inspire it.
That has been the quandary ever since. Our parks enshrine the country at its most majestic—canyons and mountaintops and coral reefs. How the hell does an artist do them justice?
Some artists went for brilliant drama. Moran later painted Arizona’s Grand Canyon in a Sturm und Drang style befitting a backdrop for a Southwestern production of The Ring Cycle. Photographers employed a cooler, black-and-white eye. The same year the Park Service was founded, a 14-year-old San Francisco boy made his first trip to Yosemite. Young Ansel Adams wanted to be a concert pianist. On his first morning in the park his parents gave him a Brownie box camera. Adams eventually changed his career plans.
Contemporary artists are drawn not just to our parks’ landscapes (Death Valley dunes, Wrangell−St. Elias peaks) but also to an element earlier artists tended to leave out: the people, the nearly 300 million of us who visit the parks each year. We pose by Crater Lake, we swim in a river in Yellowstone. And just as Moran did, we gaze at the scenery and ask, how could any artist approach that? Call it the greatest of American challenges— making art that can stand alongside the glories that inspire it.
Here, eight artworks that capture the beauty, grandeur, and surprise of the national parks.
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