Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on March 28, 2008 with the permission of the Denver Art Museum. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Denver Art Museum directly through either this phone number or web address:


Artist-explorers and Today's Western Landscape

by Mindy A. Besaw


Adventure is an element in American artist-life which gives it singular zest and interest.

- H. T. Tuckerman, 1867 [1]


Adventure and art are more closely linked than is commonly thought. Almost two hundred years ago, artists accompanied expedition parties to the West on adventures of a lifetime. More recently, living artists have been leaving the indoor comfort of their studios to experience the western landscape. Keith Jacobshagen drove to the open Nebraska prairie on side roads to observe cloud formations. Tucker Smith led a pack trip into the Wind River Range of Wyoming's Rocky Mountains to find an unnamed lake. Wilson Hurley piloted a plane over the mesas and canyons of the Southwest to explore his home country from the air. And Tony Foster rafted the Colorado River to view the Grand Canyon from the relatively unusual vantage point of the river. They are adventurers, and they are artists.

Many artists today are committed to an ongoing exploration of the power and attraction of the western landscape. For these artist-explorers, observation and experience of the land are fundamental components of western landscape painting. The art does not exist without exploration, and the journey is essential to the finished picture. Art and exploration have a long history in the West, and this history is alive today through the artists who nod to the past yet create unique and contemporary perspectives on the way we experience western landscape and wilderness in our time.

In 1819-20, Major Stephen H. Long included two artists, Samuel Seymour and Titian Ramsey Peale, in his first major expedition across the Great Plains of the Midwest to the Rocky Mountains. [fig. 1] Seymour and Peale were the first of many artists to explore the western United States and portray its landscape in paintings. Following the Long expedition, it was standard for artists to be included in survey parties. Artists were hired to record not only the topography but also the inhabitants. The artists' field sketches were used to illustrate the findings of the expedition and provided the artist with material to produce studio paintings for years after the initial expedition. Many artists who saw the new images were inspired to go west on their own without an accompanying government survey party.

The paintings that attracted the most attention from the nineteenth-century American audience were the vistas of the West. The carefully composed and executed paintings of this distant land offered promise and pleasure to viewers who responded with great enthusiasm. The simple fact that the artist had ventured west of the Mississippi River made the pictures all the more appealing to the public. Paintings depicting the grandeur and vastness of the West continue to delight viewers today, which shows that our appetite for western landscape has not yet been satisfied.

A comprehensive listing of artists, explorers, expeditions, and surveys is beyond the scope of this essay, so I will touch on only a small handful that pertain to artworks in the Denver Art Museum's collection.

In 1832, George Catlin traveled up the Missouri River from St. Louis to Fort Union, in present-day North Dakota, on the American Fur Company's steamboat Yellowstone. The primary purpose of Catlin's journey was to record American Indians, but among the 135 pictures he painted in 1832, twenty-five were landscapes. [2] In the majority of the landscapes, Catlin highlighted the scenic rolling hills and the unusually shaped and multicolored clay banks along the Missouri River. In a simplified but equally beautiful painting of the prairie, Catlin depicted only the essential elements of the green bluff against a cloudy pink sky. [fig. 2] Catlin was not fond of the "continuous prairie," and after a week's ride across the flat land he called the Plains a "discouraging sea of green." Catlin's prairie painting, Nishnabottana Bluffs, was quickly rendered, as if he didn't want to spend too much time on a subject that didn't interest him. As western history scholar Brian Dippie points out, "The Plains . . . demanded a new aesthetic, an appreciation of the sublime horizontal and a willingness to accept the artistic challenge posed by featureless open space."[3] Catlin preferred a landscape with picturesque features.

In contrast to Catlin, Keith Jacobshagen (born 1941) is an artist who has embraced the "sublime horizontal." Jacobshagen paints the landscape within an hour's drive of his home in Lincoln, Nebraska. [4] He knows the region as intimately as a cartographer; however, Jacobshagen's familiarity with the land doesn't stop him from continually discovering new perspectives on familiar subjects. He finds inspiration in the ever-changing sky and the effects of shifting light and weather. In By June the Light Begins to Breathe, Jacobshagen sets the horizon line so low that the flat band of prairie occupies only a fraction of the painting. Jacobshagen takes delight in the real focus of the painting -- the wispy, fleeting clouds in the summer sky.

Like Jacobshagen, the nineteenth-century Hudson River landscape artist Worthington Whittredge also admired the Midwest prairie. When he later recalled his experience with General John Pope on an 1866 expedition from Kansas through Nebraska and Colorado, he said, "I had never seen the plains or anything like them. They impressed me deeply. I cared more for them than for the mountains, and very few of my western pictures have been produced from sketches made in the mountains, but rather from those made on the plains with the mountains in the distance."[5] The sense of wonder of discovery and exploration that Whittredge felt on the Pope expedition had a profound effect on him, and he returned to Colorado in the summer of 1870 with two fellow artists, Sanford Gifford and John Kensett. Whittredge depicted the transient effects of light and mood in his landscapes of the West. Bright sunlight illuminates the foreground vegetation and river in Foothills Colorado, while the Rocky Mountains in the distance fade under a gray haze.

As artists and explorers ventured farther west, the Rocky Mountains offered spectacular views to be captured on canvas. Contemporary artist Tucker Smith (born 1940) does not have to journey far from his home on the Hoback Rim in western Wyoming to find his favorite subject -- the unspoiled beauty of sprawling ranchland and mountainous wilderness areas. Smith takes frequent horsepack trips into the Wind River Range where he is continually inspired by nature. He says his art is informed by an experiential imperative: "I live in the West, so my paintings reflect the West . . . I believe it is necessary to experience nature first hand in order to be able to convey it to someone else through a painting."[6]

Unnamed Lake was inspired by Smith's discovery of a lake on a pack trip. [fig. 3] With a friend in tow carrying his paint box and equipment, Smith climbed a steep canyon wall and boulder field to reach the lake. He was struck by the pristine nature of the lake in its "primitive form" and painted an oil sketch of the scene on site. [7] Smith was enlivened with the possibility that the lake was untouched by recent human presence. His composition places the viewer at the edge of the lake in the foreground as if the viewer has just appeared over the ridge to discover and experience the landscape for himself.

Smith is not the first artist to have encountered unnamed lakes and undocumented landscapes within the Wind River Range. From April to August of 1859, Albert Bierstadt accompanied Frederick William Lander's survey party to the Rocky Mountains. Bierstadt traveled north beyond South Pass, on the Continental Divide, where he completed a number of studies of the Wind River and Wasatch ranges. When Bierstadt began exhibiting paintings of the Rocky Mountains to an eastern audience in January 1860, the pictures were greeted with enthusiasm. Because Bierstadt had traveled west, his pictures were accepted as factual reports from a distant region that was still relatively unknown. However, as art historian Nancy Anderson has pointed out, "Bierstadt invented the western American landscape by skillfully joining passages of carefully observed and meticulously rendered detail with freely configured compositions that met national needs."[8] Although the landscapes were deliberately composed, it was Bierstadt's observations and experience that gave life to his studio paintings. Americans who constantly sought information from the West were passionate about the latest scenes of distant lands. Unlike Smith, who placed the viewer in an intimate landscape, Bierstadt places the viewer amid the wilderness overlooking a wide panorama of the West.

In the far northwest corner of Wyoming, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks continue to offer breathtaking views to artists and adventurers alike. Dr. Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden led a government expedition into the area in 1871. The western photographer William Henry Jackson and the painter Thomas Moran were part of the expedition. For thirty-eight days in the summer, the expedition party explored the marvels of the Yellowstone region -- hot springs, geysers, vapor vents, mud pots, waterfalls, and canyons. [9]

For Jackson and Moran, the pictorial highlight of the expedition was when the party came across the Lower Falls and Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. Hayden described the scene as the "very nearly vertical walls, slightly sloping down to the water's edge on either side, so that from the Summit the River appears like a thread of silver foaming over its rocky bottom; the variegated colors of the sides, yellow, red, brown, white, all intermixed and shading into each other; the Gothic columns of every form standing out from the sides of the walls with greater variety and more striking colors than ever adorned a work of human art." [10] This natural marvel has challenged artists for more than a hundred years and is one of the most sketched, painted, and photographed sites in the park. Jackson's photographs of the falls and other wonders in the Yellowstone area were reproduced in abundance upon Hayden's return to Washington. [fig. 4] The widespread publicity generated public interest in Yellowstone, and thanks in part to Hayden's own lobbying efforts, a bill to make Yellowstone the first national park was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872, after it passed both houses of Congress with unanimous consent.

Moran's masterpiece, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, was unveiled in April 1872 shortly after Yellowstone's designation as a national park. [fig. 5] The monumental painting, measuring 7 x 12 feet, was the first American landscape by an American artist purchased by Congress and hung in the U.S. Capitol. Moran's painting clearly conveys the magnificence of Yellowstone through sharp details and stunning colors. Yellowstone in 1872 was unlike anything most people had ever seen, so Moran painted a picture that attempted to convince them that such a place actually existed. [11]

Today Yellowstone is a well-known and highly romanticized tourist spot that attracts more than two million visitors a year. Pictures of the Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon continue to inspire passion in American viewers. Wilson Hurley (born 1924), one of the premier living landscape artists, painted The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in about 1981. [fig. 6] Hurley's painting is not quite as monumental as Moran's but is still large, measuring 5 x 8 feet. Hurley has painted this scene many times and says, "Of all the scenes in North America, I believe the view of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone from Artist's Point is the most striking."[12] Hurley's earlier Air Force experience informs the viewpoint of his paintings. In his creatively composed landscapes, the viewer seems to hover higher than the picture plane as if seeing the scene from above. Hurley typically begins a painting on location with oil sketches to match the natural colors and photographs to record the details. Hurley finishes the painting in his New Mexico studio, using elements from his oil sketches, photographs, and personal observation. He says his ultimate goal is "to try to paint the world as freshly and as beautifully as I am able to with my own personal world view." [13] Hurley admits that today's painters are indebted to a long history of painters like Moran, but he can only focus on his own experience and views, not those of the past.

Hayden, who made his reputation as the explorer of Yellowstone, spent four subsequent expedition seasons in Colorado from 1873 to 1876. In 1873, one of the main goals of the survey party was to locate the fabled Mount of the Holy Cross. As in a previous Hayden survey, William Henry Jackson was hired to photograph the landscape. Moran was so excited by the "discovery" after seeing Jackson's photographs that he made a special trip to Colorado in 1874 to sketch the mystical peak. Moran painted the subject for decades after his experience. His watercolor, Mount of the Holy Cross, completed in 1894 and now in the Denver Art Museum's collection, attests to the subject's enduring popularity. [fig. 7] The intentionally unfinished style of the watercolor gives the impression of a field sketch and keeps the subject fresh for the viewer.

A contemporary and rival of Hayden in the late nineteenth century was Major John Wesley Powell, the first explorer to survey the entirety of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado. In 1869, the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon was the only unmapped area in the western United States. On maps it was simply labeled "unexplored." Powell's Colorado River Expedition pushed off from Green River Station, Wyoming Territory, on May 24, 1869. On the expedition, science and adventure were wed. Powell's main objective was to collect scientific readings and measurements, but he and his crew were also attracted to the potential danger of traveling through unmapped terrain. When most of the party emerged from the canyon in August 1869, the expedition became legendary almost immediately -- as much for its trials as for its scientific accomplishments.

Powell's first expedition on the Colorado River in 1869 did not include an artist or photographer, but in subsequent expeditions, following Hayden's lead, he focused on producing a visual record of the canyon. In 1871-72, Powell employed several photographers and artists. The most prolific photographer was John K. (Jack) Hillers, who was not hired as a photographer but as a boatman. Considering the danger of the rapids and the weight and fragile nature of the glass-plate negatives, it is a wonder that any of Hillers's photographs survived the Grand Canyon at all. [fig. 8]

In 1873, Moran accompanied Powell to the Grand Canyon to paint the dramatic landscape. On this trip he painted watercolor field sketches from the rim of the canyon overlooking the Colorado River and from near the Virgin River looking up at the canyon walls in what is now Zion National Park. [fig. 9] Moran loaded the sketch with his impressions of the canyon. He described the multicolored cliffs against the teal blue river and the overwhelming immensity of the canyon walls compared to the travelers' tiny boats. Many artists have depicted the Grand Canyon since, but very few view the canyon walls from the relatively unusual vantage point of the river rather than the rim. Moran's watercolor is a prelude to the work of two living artists, Tony Foster and Merrill Mahaffey, who also prefer the view of the canyon from water level.

For sixteen days in 2000, Foster (born 1946), a British artist with a love for adventure, navigated the Grand Canyon in a raft and created a series of mixed media assemblages, Sixteen Days Rafting the Colorado, 225.8 miles, Lee's Ferry to Diamond Creek. Foster refers to his work as "watercolor diaries." Each diary in the series consists of a watercolor landscape, written journal excerpt, and a souvenir or memento collected along the journey. For example, the third work in the series, "Mile 50," includes a watercolor of the calm Colorado River snaking between striated cliffs, beneath a blue sky with strands of white clouds. Although Foster finished the watercolor later in his studio, the watercolor retains the immediacy of the site, much as Moran's field sketches do. Below the watercolor is a small map that marks Foster's drawing site and the precise location of his subject. [fig. 10] The journal text below the map relays the details of Foster's day: "Camp 4 -- 20/21 June -- looking upriver for a painting site I fall off a boulder & crush the water bottle I have carried for 20 years -- am 21 -- hike Nankoweap Canyon and learn the symptoms of dehydration in the fierce heat." The souvenir is a piece of Foster's crushed water bottle, which relates directly to the text. In addition, the texture and shape echo the ripple of the water and add visual interest to the assemblage. Foster treated each day on the river like a mini-expedition, gathering materials and sketches along the way to include in his finished work of art, which served as his report of his findings. Viewers can vicariously experience Foster's river trip by reading the journal and examining the watercolors and souvenirs.

Mahaffey (born 1937), who also navigates the Colorado River from a raft, is interested in how the colors of the earth change because of the position of the sun at different times of day. In his painting Marble Canyon, Mahaffey depicts a close-up view of the canyon walls. He concentrates on the structure, texture, color, and light of the cliffs from a fresh perspective. Although painted in a photorealistic manner, the canyon walls become almost abstracted into basic lines and shapes. [fig. 11] Mahaffey's studio painting is stylistically different from the watercolors of Moran and Foster, but like the others, it retains the essence of firsthand experience.

Whether the subject is the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, or the Great Plains, adventure gave -- and continues to give -- zest and interest to the lives of artists and to the audiences who view their pictures. The artist-explorers of the West go beyond a literal translation of nature to summarize and portray their experience in the landscape -- the thrill of discovering a new land or their passion to personalize a view that has been portrayed hundreds of times before.

Just as nineteenth-century audiences viewed paintings and photographs of western scenes with awe and enthusiasm, audiences today view contemporary western art with pleasure and delight. Patrons across the country buy paintings to adorn homes and offices with panoramas of the Grand Canyon or the Rocky Mountains. Gazing upon the paintings adds zeal to the mundane tasks of everyday life. As long as viewers crave adventure, western landscape paintings will continue to endure.



1 Henry T. Tuckerman, Book of the Artists (1867; reprint, New York: James F. Carr, 1967), 389 (page citation is to the reprint edition).

2 Brian W. Dippie, "Green Fields and Red Men," in George Catlin and His Indian Gallery, ed. Therese Thau Heyman and George Gurney, with essays by Brian W. Dippie, Christopher Mulvey, and Joan Carpenter Troccoli (Washington, DC: Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2002), 33.

3 Ibid., 39.

4 Biographical information about living artists is available in Contemporary Realism Collection: Denver Art Museum, vol. 2 (Denver: Denver Art Museum, 2006).

5 John I. H. Baur, ed., The Autobiography of Worthington Whittredge: 1820-1910 (New York: Arno Press, 1969), 45.

6 Tucker Smith, as quoted by Trailside Galleries on www.askart.com.

7 Tucker Smith, letter to Denver Art Museum, 7 March 2005. Denver Art Museum files.

8 Nancy K. Anderson and Linda S. Ferber, Albert Bierstadt: Art & Enterprise (New York: The Brooklyn Museum in Association with Hudson Hills Press, 1991), 74.

9 Richard A. Bartlett, Great Surveys of the American West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1962), 56.

10 Quoted in Bartlett, Great Surveys of the American West, 50.

11 Joni Louise Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 45.

12 Quoted in Wilson Hurley (Santa Fe: Nedra Matteucci Galleries, 2004), n.p.

13 Wilson Hurley, interview by James T. Forrest, "Wilson Hurley: A Study of American Landscape Painters Today and Yesterday," in Wilson Hurley: A Retrospective Exhibition (Kansas City: The Lowell Press in association with the Albuquerque Museum and the Buffalo Bill Historical Center, 1985), 42.


About the Author

Mindy A. Besaw is The John S. Bugas Curator of the Whitney Gallery of Western Art at the Buffalo Bill Historical Center. Her email address is mindyb [at] bbhc.org

Ms. Besaw came to the Whitney from the Denver Art Museum, where she was Curatorial Associate at the Institute of Western American Art. While there, she served on a building-wide team that planned the re-installation of the permanent collection galleries in the new wing of the Museum which opened in 2006. Among other responsibilities at the Denver Art Museum, she also coordinated the exhibitions Frederic Remington: The Color of Night; West Point/Points West: A Celebration of Western Expeditionary Art; and The Harmsen Collection: A Colorado Legacy.

Ms. Besaw brings eight years of museum experience to the Whitney Gallery. She earned her M.A. in Art History at the University of Denver where she focused on museum studies and her B.F.A in Art History at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. In addition to museum experience, Besaw was Adjunct Instructor in Art History at the University of Colorado, Denver for four years.

With a background in contemporary art as well as art of the West, Ms. Besaw's special interest is to connect contemporary western art with its historical counterpart. She is currently working on an article comparing landscape artists of the twentieth century with nineteenth century explorer-artists.(source: Buffalo Bill Historical Center)


About Western Passages

George Carlson's work is highlighted in the annual Western Passages publication of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. "Heart of the West: New Painting and Sculpture of the American West" includes essays on George Carlson, collecting Western American art, the Museum's Contemporary Realism Group, artist-explorers and the Western landscape, and full color illustrations. The above essay is one of four essays from Heart of the West: New Painting and Sculpture of the American West and the catalogue for the George Carlson: Heart of the West exhibition being held at the Denver Art Museum December 15, 2007 - April 13, 2008. (source: Denver Art Museum)


About the Institute of Western American Art

In September 2007, The Denver Art Museum announced that Denver resident Tom Petrie would endow the Museum's Institute of Western American Art. Additionally, he agreed to a long-term loan of pieces from his comprehensive collection of works by Western artist Charles M. Russell for display at the Museum. In recognition both of this gift and Mr. Petrie's long-time commitment to Western art and the Denver Art Museum, the Museum announced a new name for the Museum's Western art initiative: "The Petrie Institute of Western American Art."

The gift will be used to fund art display and conservation, Institute staffing, special exhibitions, and educational efforts including the annual Western Passages publication and an annual symposium. An impressive lineup of upcoming exhibitions that will be supported by the gift includes George Carlson: Heart of the West (December 15, 2007-April 13, 2008), In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein (November 15, 2008-February 15, 2009), Charles Deas: Telling Tales to 1840s America (June 6, 2009-August 30, 2009) and The Russell Retrospective (November 2009-January 2010).

"As the Denver Art Museum is at the geographic center of the Rocky Mountain West, our goal is to create one of the most internationally respected centers of Western American art," said Peter Hassrick, director of the Institute. "In conjunction with other recent gifts and initiatives by ardent supporters including the Dietler, Harmsen and Wallace families, this generous gift from Mr. Petrie provides us with very exciting momentum towards achieving this goal."

"As an avid collector of Western art and a resident of Denver, my intention is that this gift will help continue to elevate the importance of Western art within the Colorado community and at the Denver Art Museum," said Tom Petrie. "With the progress that's been made in the last decade in terms of strengthening the collection, building an excellent curatorial team and increasing the priority on Western American art, I feel that the Denver Art Museum is well positioned to develop this program into one of the finest in the world."

The Institute was founded in 2001 following the very successful Painters and the American West exhibition, drawn from the esteemed Anschutz collection, and a major donation of more than 700 objects from the collection assembled by Bill and Dorothy Harmsen. Since then, Peter H. Hassrick, a leading scholar and curator in the field of Western American art and past director of the Buffalo Bill Historical Center in Cody, Wyoming, was hired as director of the Institute. Former director and curator Joan Carpenter Troccoli has been appointed senior scholar and has focused on writing and curatorial duties associated with exhibitions and publications. Hassrick, Troccoli and associate curator Ann Daley also worked to prominently display many of the major works from the collection in the Dietler Galleries of Western American Art in the new Frederic C. Hamilton Building, which opened in October of 2006.

A member of the Denver Art Museum Board of Directors since 1998 as well as the Museum's Western Advisory Committee, Tom Petrie is a Vice Chairman of Merrill Lynch and has a long career in energy investment banking. Mr. Petrie is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, holds an MSBA from Boston University and received an Honorary Doctorate of Engineering from the Colorado School of Mines. (source: Denver Art Museum)


Resource Library editor's note

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Nicole A Parks, Curatorial Assistant, Petrie Institute of Western American Art, Denver Art Museum, for her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

RL readers may also enjoy:


Links to sources of information outside of our web site are provided only as referrals for your further consideration. Please use due diligence in judging the quality of information contained in these and all other Web sites and in employing referenced consultants or vendors. Information from linked sources may be inaccurate or out of date. Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc neither recommends or endorses these referenced organizations. Although Traditional Fine Art Organization, Inc. includes links to other web sites, it takes no responsibility for the content or information contained on those other sites, nor exerts any editorial or other control over those other sites. For more information on evaluating web pages see Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc.'s General Resources section in Online Resources for Collectors and Students of Art History.

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

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2008 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.