Legislation, Art and the Wild West

Works Helped Influence Creation of Yellowstone

Posted July 29, 2005 at 2:05pm

CODY, WYO. — It may seem improbable nowadays, but more than 100 years ago a series of paintings helped influence one of Congress’ cardinal legislative acts.

The year was 1871. And geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden had just returned from leading a summer-long expedition of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories to explore the Yellowstone region. In addition to the usual assortment of “men of science,” Hayden had with him then-fledgling landscape painter Thomas Moran.

Though not an official member of the expedition — his way was being paid by financier Jay Cooke, who was in the process of developing the Northern Pacific Railroad — Moran was essential in recording the vibrant colors and geological peculiarities of America’s “wonderland” at a time before color photos and TV. And just in case there was any doubt as to the veracity of Moran’s images, photographer William Henry Jackson, the first to successfully capture Yellowstone’s marvels on film, was along to snap black and whites.

When Hayden headed to Washington later that year to lobby for the creation of a national park at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River, he brought with him a 500-page report detailing Yellowstone’s geysers, falls and hot springs — as well as Jackson’s pioneering photographs and Moran’s watercolors. [IMGCAP(1)]

Several of Moran’s Yellowstone images are included in the exhibit, “Drawn to Yellowstone: Artists in America’s First National Park,” now on view at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., which traces the enduring appeal of the national park for generations of artists. The exhibit is based on a book by former center director Peter Hassrick, now at the Denver Art Museum. Ex-Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.), chairman of the center’s board of trustees, was influential in bringing the exhibit, which is touring the country, to the Equality State museum.

“It’s no coincidence that Hayden had Moran with him,” Hassrick said. “He did everything he could to provide material for people who might be funding him. He didn’t just take one artist with him, he took three.” (In addition to Moran and Jackson, the expedition included official artist Henry Wood Elliott and topographical artist Anton Schonborn.)

The same year the bill establishing the law was signed, 1872, Moran’s majestic painting of “The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone” — based on sketches made during the Hayden expedition — became the first American landscape ever purchased by Congress to hang in its halls. Today, the masterpiece, along with a Moran rendering of the canyon from a subsequent trip, is on display at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery.

Hayden’s expedition was hardly the first to include an artistic dimension, however.

Notably, in 1870, Montana Territory surveyor general Henry Dana Washburn led an expedition to explore Yellowstone that included two amateur artists, private Charles Moore and journalist Walter Trumbull, son of Sen. Lyman Trumbull (D-Ill.), who would later be influential in helping pass the legislation creating Yellowstone. Trumbull and Moore’s rough sketches of Yellowstone attractions, some of which are included in the show, were among those Moran would be commissioned to transform into ink-wash drawings for publication by Scribner’s Monthly magazine before he actually set foot in Yellowstone.

“Moran had actually been there [vicariously] a year before,” Hassrick noted of the man who would become known as “the painter of Yellowstone.”

There was also some precedent at the time for art to affect political decisions, Hassrick said.

Roughly a decade before the Hayden expedition, the popularity of the landscape painter Albert Bierstadt’s Yosemite paintings also may have helped indirectly influence the decision of the President Abraham Lincoln administration to sign into law a bill granting California the area as an inalienable public trust, he said. (Later, it, too, would become a national park.)

“If a painter went to the Grand Canyon today nobody would care,” Hassrick said. But at the time, “it was such an exotic and original experience for everyone to see this spectacular terrain.”

‘The Nation’s Art Gallery’

In the years following the Hayden expedition, artists began to trek to the world’s first national park in search of fortune, fame and adventure. Among these was Moran’s rival, Bierstadt, who would later send some of his Yellowstone paintings to President Chester Arthur, who would, in turn, head out to “see the originals” for himself.

After the 1883 opening of the Northern Pacific Railroad’s “Yellowstone Branch,” visitors increased considerably to the area where, in the words of naturalist John Muir, “all the earth … seems to be paint.” By the 1890s, Yellowstone’s spectacular visuals had earned it the nickname “the Nation’s Art Gallery.”

Like Moran, many artists arrived on the railroads’ dime, including James Everett Stuart, who traded paintings with the Northern Pacific Railroad in exchange for financing for his Yellowstone visits. Such images helped fuel tourism to the park by providing the railroads with a valuable advertising tool.

Over the years, Yellowstone artists have chosen various emphases, from Moran, Bierstadt and Thomas Hill’s focus on awe-inspiring geological features to John Henry Twachtman’s contemplatively cool impressions of falls and multicolored pools to Anne Coe’s campy explorations into the sociological effects of feeding the bears.

Yellowstone “gives an incredible opportunity for artists to respond to something that is uniquely and very typically American,” said Sarah Boehme, curator of the center’s Whitney Gallery of Western Art. “It appealed to different aspects of artists’ interest.”

The park has also served as inspiration for advertisements. Frederic Mizen’s humorous depiction of well-heeled tourists and a family of grizzlies guzzling Coca-Cola while the reliable geyser spouts nearly unnoticed in the background is not to be missed. More abstractly, the park’s features have served as compositional fodder. For instance, Daniel Chester French’s elegant marble sculpture of an angel descending from heaven to embrace an earthly female, part of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s permanent collection, is modeled after the form of an erupting Old Faithful.

But while styles may vary, the overall aesthetic impact of the Yellowstone images has remained remarkably consistent, Hassrick noted.

“Yellowstone in the 1980s had a lot of contentious issues from fires to wolf management,” he said. But with few exceptions, most artists have avoided the park’s ironies or political controversies. “Basically they are still painting pretty pictures.”

Carrying on the Legacy

Robert Seabeck, a Wyoming painter whose acrylic montage “Yellowstone” is included in the show, is among the artists still flocking to Yellowstone. On a recent July afternoon, Seabeck stood in the midst of the exhibit at his easel, his denim artist’s apron flecked with paint. “I’m the living person,” he quipped.

For the past week, Seabeck had been serving as an artist-in-residence, spending the better part of each day painting his soft impressionistic interpretations of the national park’s landmarks, such as Lewis Falls and Castle Geyser. In between his work, Seabeck said he’d happily interacted with visitors, answering inquiries ranging from the ins and outs of his artistic process to the location of the bathrooms to “How do you get to Old Faithful?” (As if on cue, a cowboy hat-wearing man in a wheelchair, who said he was nearly a centenarian and a “pretty good storyteller,” rolled up to Seabeck’s workspace and loudly asked how he could get a job. Seabeck took it all in stride.)

Seabeck, who travels to Yellowstone twice a year for painting stints, said he wasn’t surprised that more than 130 years after Moran first encountered Yellowstone, artists, like himself, continue to return to the park’s stunning landscape for inspiration.

“Every time you visit, the light’s going to be different, so there’s a different aspect of the subject to be explored,” he said. “We all want to have our hand on it.”

If you are headed West during the August recess, “Drawn to Yellowstone: Artists in America’s First National Park” is on view at The Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyo., until Oct. 2. For more information, go to www.bbhc.org.