Editor's note: The following monograph was rekeyed and reprinted on November 12, 2002 in Resource Library Magazine with permission of Wildling Art Museum and Marlene and Warren Miller. The monograph was previously included in an illustrated catalogue for the exhibition America's Wilderness in Art, held October 20, 2001 through January 20, 2002 at Wildling Art Museum. Images accompanying the text in the illustrated brochure were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the monograph, or if you have interest in obtaining a copy of the illustrated brochure please contact Wildling Art Museum directly through either this phone number or Web address:


America's Wilderness in Art


Part I: The Historical Content

by Warren P. Miller


They came from all corners of the European continent, for a variety of reasons: some for fame, some for fortune, or adventure, or for religious freedom, or to avoid military service, or escape famine. Some came not of their own volition, but as indentured servants or - later - from Africa as slaves. Whatever their reason, they crossed the Atlantic Ocean in small wooden sailing ships with indifferent navigation to start a new life in faraway America. They and their children and grandchildren established a new nation, explored and then settled a continent.

In the process they encountered strange and wonderful sights: native peoples far different from themselves; exotic flora and fauna; woodlands, prairies, deserts, mountains, immense lakes and great rivers. The discoveries were often memorialized in personal journals or official reports, which are invaluable sources of information about the early years of the continent's settlement. Sometimes these records were visual: drawings, sketches, paintings. Later, artistic expressions were used to raise awareness, shape public opinion and stimulate government action. These visual records are important primary sources that help us reconstruct and understand Americans' attitudes towards "wilderness" throughout our history.

The earliest known graphic records of the new world by non-native peoples were sketches of Indians and their ceremonies dating from the 1560s. These early drawings make an important point. The term "wilderness," as most often defined, assumes an absence of human population. Calling North America "wilderness" when first encountered by Europeans ignores the fact that, at the time of Columbus' first voyage, there was a substantial population, estimated at between one and two million, that had been living here for centuries. These native Americans, whom Columbus named "Indians" in the mistaken belief that he had landed in the Far East, were considered merely curiosities by the newly arrived settlers. There was little or no attempt to understand their culture. As the Europeans pushed farther west, misunderstanding and conflict with the Indians became more and more common, especially over the issue of exclusive ownership and control of land, a concept totally foreign to the Indians. Disease, warfare and dislocation reduced the Indian population to about 250,000 at the end of the 19th Century, from which level it has only recently recovered to about 1.5 million today.

Seafarers from Europe began exploring the edges of a previously unknown landmass on the western side of the Atlantic Ocean in the 15th Century. Their goal was a new trade route to the Orient, not territory to conquer, but organized explorations of the continent began in earnest soon after Columbus' discoveries became known. By the middle of the 16th Century Spain had taken control of modern-day Mexico* and explored as far north as Colorado and Kansas; Spanish and English naval forces had ventured north of San Francisco Bay.

The first permanent European settlements in eastern North America date from early in the 17th Century, with the establishment of the Jamestown, Virginia colony by the English in 1607, and Quebec by the French in 1608. England and France continued as the dominant colonial powers in eastern North America, a rivalry that lasted until England's victory over French forces in 1763. But English dominance was short-lived, ending with the declaration of American independence in 1776. The Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended hostilities in 1783, granted the new United States control of all of North America south of the St. Lawrence River and Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River.

The western extremities of the continent had already been explored, but only haphazardly and primarily to gauge the area's strategic importance or potential for economic gain. The new nation's settlements were concentrated along the eastern seaboard, and nearly all of the land west of the Allegheny Mountains, though part of the United States, remained largely terra incognita.

One major economic force that stimulated early exploration and exploitation of the U.S. and Canadian West was the fur market. Both trappers and fur traders were important sources of information about the unexplored continent. North American beaver and, later, buffalo hides were much sought after. Another animal hunted principally for its fur was the Pacific seal, but not by Americans: Russian settlements were well established in Alaska by the end of the 18th Century, and seal-hunting stations were eventually opened as far south as Northern California. However maintenance of its North American outposts proved too costly for Russia, which sold Alaska to the United States in 1867.

The geographical size of the U.S. more than doubled in 1803, with President Jefferson's purchase from France of the Louisiana Territory. This set in motion a half century of annexation, exploration and settlement unparalleled in American history. Lewis and Clark's expedition up the Missouri River and across the northern Rockies to the Pacific Ocean (1804-6), the first of many major explorations of the West, had a profound effect on America's appreciation and understanding of its new acquisition.

Into the 1840s, most of the expeditions west of the Mississippi were exploratory and fact-finding, with military or governmental scientific sponsorship. Territorial acquisition reached a peak in the 1840s: in a five-year period from 1845, Texas, the western Great Plains and the entire area west of the Rocky Mountains became U.S. possessions .

Discoveries of great mineral riches fueled the rush to gold in the Sierras during the late 1840s and '50s and in the Rockies a few years thereafter. The great wagon routes, some pioneered only a few years before, became so heavily traveled that fodder for livestock was scarce. For most of the adventurers and emigrants, whether on the Oregon Trail, the Salt Lake Trail, the Santa Fe or Emigrant Trail, or following the route of the Overland Stage and the Pony Express, the goal was the Far West. But at about the same time an influx of a very different sort occurred, with the arrival of Brigham Young and his Mormon followers, who migrated to present-day Utah and subsequently settled the Great Basin region.

During this period the slavery issue became an important subtext in the national discourse about settlement of the West, especially with respect to the granting of statehood to western territories. The Civil War itself certainly constrained the pace of westward expansion, which resumed soon after hostilities ceased.

Arguably the most important influence on the development of the West was the railroad. First introduced in this country in 1830, within a generation it had overshadowed all other means of transportation, at least east of the Mississippi. With the gold rush and California's admission to the Union in 1850, building a railroad to the Pacific Coast became a high priority. President Lincoln, who saw the transcontinental railroad as a way to bind the nation together, selected the route shortly after the start of the Civil War. Construction began immediately after the war, when two competing companies, both financed with government subsidies, began building at the ends of the route, one from Council Bluffs, Iowa, and one from Sacramento, California. They met at Promontory Point in northern Utah in May 1869.

With the coming of the railroad, settlement of the west began in earnest. A trip from coast to coast could be made in a matter of days, not months. Livestock could be moved from western ranges to markets in the east, and the era of the great Texas cattle drives began.

Part of the government's inducement to build the transcontinental railroad was granting the companies title to land along the rights-of-way. But just as the railroads needed passengers and their fares, they also needed buyers for their land. During earlier explorations areas of great scenic beauty had been discovered, particularly in the Rocky Mountains, and the railroads capitalized on these wonders by offering excursions to the region and, later, by constructing elaborate lodges at the early National Parks: Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, Glacier and Yosemite.

By 1890 the frontier was gone: a solid band of states stretched across the continent. Farmers, ranchers and miners, not Indians or soldiers, controlled the countryside. But in the last decade of the century a protracted drought and economic depression caused the collapse of the cattle industry and a severe retrenchment throughout the agricultural community. Previously unrestrained enthusiasm for development and exploitation began to be tempered. New approaches were needed.

The conservation movement was launched during Theodore Roosevelt's presidency as a national crusade. Wise use and stewardship of the public lands became accepted concepts, and the National Forest system was created. Development of a coordinated federal approach to water resource management, begun in 1902, signaled the maturation of the nation's attitudes towards its natural resources.

Private citizens also began rallying to the cause of resource protection. Naturalist John Muir and others founded the Sierra Club in 1892, in part "to enlist the support and cooperation of the people and the government in preserving the forests and other natural features of the Sierra Nevada Mountains."

The settlement and economic development of the west gathered steam early in the 20th Century. Extractive industries such as mining and timber cutting, intensive agriculture, and construction of dams, highways and other major public works projects began to be recognized as sources of environmental degradation. But throughout most of the 20th Century, the nation's attention was focused on other concerns: two world wars and a cold war, a great depression, and civil rights struggles to name a few. The century's great exploration adventure involved space ships, not sailing ships or prairie schooners.

Partly in response to the economic prosperity that followed World War II, Americans became increasingly aware of pollution and environmental degradation as major societal problems. The environmental movement began in earnest in the 1960s and, while all segments of society were affected, major attention was focused on the actions of the nation's largest landowner: the federal government. Among the major legislative responses to this concern was passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, which has protected more than 100 million acres of public land from development.


* Place names used here are those in present-day usage and reflect modern political boundaries.



Part II: The Art and Artists

by Marlene R. Miller


The earliest painting of America was done by a French cartographer, Jacques Le Moyne, in 1564: a scene of Florida Indians. Some of the visual renderings of the new-found land and its inhabitants survived, because the explorers took their sketches back to Europe, where many were converted into paintings or prints. However the first permanent European settlement in North America was not established until 1607, and there was no demand for art in the New World until late in the 17th Century.

By the 18th Century colonists were well enough settled to commission the occasional portrait or acquire a depiction of their surroundings. During the American Revolution many European artists and cartographers came to record and later paint heroic battle scenes and portraiture of high-ranking officials. But at the beginning of the 19th Century a painter could no longer make a living commemorating America's human icons, so the miracles of nature became America's myths, and painting them an assertion of national identity.

It began with a group of landscape painters, now commonly known as the Hudson River School, in 1825. This group of artists was not an organized movement, but they were bound together by a common desire to express their love of the country through the medium of art. Though other styles such as Impressionism, Realism, and Modernism later came into vogue, and much of our "wilderness" is no longer pristine, the landscape remains an important component in American art.

The portrait of Major Stephen H. Long (page 3) is attributed to Titian Ramsey Peale (1799-1885), youngest son of famed portraitist Charles Willson Peale. Titian Peale accompanied Major Long on the government-sponsored Rocky Mountain Expedition in 1819-20. Major Long was the first expedition leader to employ civilians from America's scientific and artistic community, and Peale's role as a naturalist and painter was to illustrate and record botanical specimens.

Also in the 1820s, another naturalist, John James Audubon (1785-1851) recorded 489 species of birds during his travels in North America. American Magpie is one of these. Audubon captured the true spirit of nature in his vivid watercolors, which were later engraved on copper plates by Robert Havell. William G. Williams' (1801-1846) Marsh Hawks probably derives from one of his expeditions as an officer in the U.S. Army's Corps of Topographical Engineers. A graduate of West Point, Williams led the 6,000-mile coastal survey of the Great Lakes. He was killed in the Mexican War at the Battle of Monterey, while serving as Chief of Engineers under General Zachary Taylor.

In the summer of 1833, Swiss-born artist Karl Bodmer (1809-1893) accompanied Prince Maximilian, a German anthropologist, 500 miles up the Missouri River. Maximilian was gathering material for a series of volumes on North America and brought Bodmer along to provide the illustrations such as Camp of the Gros Ventres of the Prairies (page 2). Bodmer's paintings are an important contribution to American art not only for their ethnological significance but also for their artistic values.

Both Thomas Worthington Whittredge (1820-1910) and Albert Bierstadt were important members of the Hudson River School. Before exploring the Missouri Territory with General Pope, Whittredge painted many romantic views of the Hudson River Valley and the Catskill Mountains like Kaaterskill Falls. Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) is recognized as the foremost painter of the American frontier, and the first American artist of national reputation to record the land of Alta California. Though best known for his romanticized and grandiose panoramas, he is equally admired for his smaller, less-idealized canvases, and his perceptive on-site studies and oil sketches, such as Old Faithful (page 7).

A contemporary of Bierstadt, James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) became one of the most influential late 19th Century American painters and etchers, although he lived primarily in England. He worked in a variety of mediums, including lithography. The View of Anacapa Island is an example. Cleveland S. Rockwell (1837-1907), also a contemporary of Bierstadt, was a mapmaker for the Union Army in the Civil War who retired in Portland, Oregon. Although he did not become a full-time painter until late in life, sketches from his military expeditions served as a basis for both oils and watercolors. His renderings are tight and accurate, with great attention to detail.

One of America's most admired artists of the period is Thomas Moran (1837-1926), who first came to prominence after accompanying the 1871 Hayden Survey party to the Yellowstone region. His monumental views, together with the photographs of William Henry Jackson, were instrumental in securing the 1872 Congressional designation of the area as the world's first National Park. The following year Moran joined John Wesley Powell's third expedition down the Colorado River; Moran's panoramas of the canyon created a sensation when they appeared with William Henry Holmes' (1846-1933) detailed scientific illustrations in the handsome Atlas that accompanied the U.S. Geological Survey's Tertiary History of the Grand Cañon District, published in 1882. It has been said that these views were the highest point ever reached in topographical illustration. During his career Moran painted throughout the West, including Yosemite (front cover), but returned often to paint the Grand Canyon.

Colin Campbell Cooper's (1856-1937) Half Dome, Yosemite, painted in 1916 (page 6) shows his masterful handling of the ever-changing light and atmosphere of the Sierras. His impressionistic street scenes, architectural subjects and paintings of gardens made him internationally famous, and his series of New York and Philadelphia skyscrapers were his most notable achievement. But he, too, discovered the grandeur of the west, exchanging the monuments of nature for the monuments of man.

A number of artists were either sponsored by the railroads, or traded paintings for transportation. William R. Leigh (1866-1955) offered the Santa Fe Railroad Company one of his Grand Canyon paintings in exchange for a ride to New Mexico. Company officials were so pleased that they commissioned him to do five more; The scene shown on page 5 might very well be one of them. Carl Oscar Borg (1879-1947), too, had his paintings hanging in the offices of the Santa Fe. He loved the Southwest and, through art patron Phoebe Hearst's connections and support, was able to live among the Indians, recording and painting their customs, ceremonies, and magnificent surroundings, like Canyon de Chelly at Night (page 8).

Most of the early western railroads commissioned artists to help promote their routes and facilities. Maynard Dixon's (1875-1946) style with its strong dramatic forms and clear, vivid colors (page 10) was also well suited to murals. A 1906 commission for the Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Tucson, Arizona was his first, followed by commissions for major public buildings, including the California State Library in Sacramento and the headquarters of the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington. In 1946, he supervised the execution of a large mural of the Grand Canyon for the ticket office of the Santa Fe Railroad in Los Angeles. John Fery (1859-1934), an Austrian aristocrat, took a select group of European hunters through the Rockies on the Northern Pacific Railroad in 1893, but it was the Great Northern Railroad that commissioned him to paint more than 350 works - some of them 10 x 12 feet - of the scenic landscape along its route for the passenger stations, hotels and lodges served by the line. Fery's paintings of the northern Rockies, such as Blue Lake (back cover) were an important source of support for creation of Glacier National Park.

There were many artists who painted nature and the wilderness without financial sponsorship. Carl C. Rungius (1869-1959) was one of them. He was a spirited and effective artist, skilled as a draftsman and highly esteemed as a visual historian and naturalist. As Proud Elk (page 11) demonstrates, his full knowledge of anatomy, his distinct composition and color sense made him the foremost painter of Western big-game subjects.

Sydney M. Laurence (1865-1940), like Rungius, loved the wilderness. In 1904, he moved to Alaska after living in the east and in England, and became Alaska's most beloved historical painter. His subject matter covered a wide range, from totem poles to miners and trappers to elevated storage caches (page 9). Theodore J. Richardson (1855-1914) did not live in Alaska, but visited and painted there from 1884 to his death in 1914. His deft watercolors and pastels range from landscapes to the architectural details of Tlingit houses.

Although Carl von Perbandt (1832-1911) was born into an aristocratic European family, he spent five years in the rugged areas of Mendocino, Humboldt and Sonoma counties, sharing everyday life with the Pomo Indians. Many of his paintings from this period were lost in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Whether the subjects are man-made skyscrapers of Manhattan, or natural rocks and waves in Maine, or scenes he painted in New Mexico (page 13), John Marin's (1870-1953) watercolors are notable in their expression. He was an important early modernist, and widely regarded as the best American watercolorist since Winslow Homer.

Printmaking was, and still is, a popular medium for artists, James David Smillie (1833-1909) made a set of plates illustrating Milton's Paradise Lost at age 14 and later worked in other mediums. The mezzotint Evening, Raquette Lake is an example. Helen Hyde (1868-1919) intended to visit Japan for a few months, but ended up staying fifteen years. She learned the Japanese method of wielding the brush, and was rewarded when she won first prize in competition with Japanese artists. Upon her return, she took up printmaking and became famous. Anders Gustave Aldrin (1889-1970) won a full scholarship to the Santa Barbara School of Fine Arts, where he learned the Japanese method of woodblock printing under Frank Morley Fletcher.

Photographers also played an important role in documenting the continent. In many cases their images were needed to prove that the wonders described by the explorers and depicted in the artists' sketches and renderings were indeed real. Sometimes there were scenes whose scale and grandeur not even a photograph could adequately depict. Men such as William Henry Jackson, E.O. Beaman and Jack Hillers pioneered the use of photography to document the wonders of the West. All accompanied John Wesley Powell on his Colorado River explorations and participated in other surveys, transporting their cumbersome equipment and fragile glass plates on pack mules into the most rugged terrain. Edward S. Curtis (1868-1952) was the official photographer of the 1899 Harriman Expedition, documenting the geological features of the Alaskan wilderness. He then embarked on a thirty-year mission to make a comprehensive and permanent record of all the important tribes of the United States. In 1927, Ansel Adams (1902-1984) published his first portfolio, Parmellian Prints of the High Sierras, which included the Lake Marion image (inside front cover). He won three Guggenheim grants to photograph the national parks and served as director of the Sierra Club for many years. Throughout his career Adams worked to increase public acceptance of photography as fine art and helped found the world's first museum collection of photographs at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The three-dimensional effect achieved in sculpture lends itself particularly well to animals. Charles M. Russell (1864-1926), although best known for his paintings, illustrations and drawings of the West, also did many bronzes (page 4). And Arthur Putnam (1873-1930) became famous for his renditions of "wildlings" (wild plants, birds, or animals) after exhibiting at the 1906 Paris Salon.

In organizing this exhibition, a concerted effort has been made to include examples of as many artistic mediums, and to cover as much of America, as possible. But this is only an overview of a very diverse subject that will be explored in more detail in future exhibits.


About the authors:

Marlene and Warren Miller are founding directors of the Wildling Art Museum and are noted collectors of early California art. Marlene Miller was guest curator for America's Wilderness in Art, which was the grand opening exhibition for the Museum.

Read more articles and essays concerning this institutional source by visiting the sub-index page for the Wildling Art Museum in Resource Library Magazine

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

This page was originally published in 2002 in Resource Library Magazine. Please see Resource Library's Overview section for more information.

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