In the current day of widely accessible images on the internet, it’s easy to know what many corners of the United States look like, even the more remote areas of National Parks.
Given countless technological advancements, it’s fascinating to think about how early Americans learned of these areas through very early photographs or massive paintings from artists who had traveled there.
In this article, we are going to explore American National Parks through paintings—some of which were very influential in the history of the National Park Service.
No 1. Merced River, Yosemite Valley (1866) by Albert Bierstadt
In 1863, Prussian-born artist Albert Bierstadt set out on his second trek out to the West. During this time, he made many studies of the sweeping landscapes before him, which he developed into grand paintings back in his New York studio.
In Merced River, Yosemite Valley, Bierstadt fills the canvas with golden hues and jagged cliffs. His name will appear on this list again as he was one the premier landscape artists of the American West.
No. 2. Minerva Terrace, Yellowstone (1872) by Thomas Moran
Next up is a work by Thomas Moran, whose œuvre includes many Western USA landscapes, in particular the region now known as Yellowstone National Park. In fact, this work was made in the same year that Yellowstone was officially designated as a National Park.
Minerva Terrace, Yellowstone is among Moran’s watercolor works. The foreground emerges from the round border, making a dramatic scene flooding the page. This work, in comparison to others on this list, ventures further into abstraction with its light color palette and unique framing.
No 3. California Redwoods (1872) by Albert Bierstadt
Moving even further out west, here is California Redwoods by Bierstadt, in which paints a scene of the majestic California forest—although the area astoundingly didn’t become a National Park until 1968.
In California Redwoods, Bierstadt paints the edge of the woods. It is a quieter and more subdued moment than many of Bierstadt’s other paintings, but still has the epic golden atmospheric quality that he is so well-known for.
No 4. Old Faithful Geyser, Yellowstone National Park (1887) by Grafton Tyler Brown
In this oil painting by Grafton Tyler Brown, Old Faithful is frozen in mid-eruption.
Throughout his career as a painter, Brown traveled through the West, visiting sites such as Mount Rainier, Yosemite, and Yellowstone. Brown was the first African-American to paint landscapes of California and the Pacific Northwest
No 5. Zion Canyon (1903) by Frederick S. Dellenbaugh
This is a very early painting of the area once known as Mukuntuweap National Monument, which is now part of Zion National Park.
Dellenbaugh served as an assistant topographer during an expedition to the Colorado River in the early 1870s. Years later, in 1903, Dellenbaugh spent the summer months painting the Zion Canyon—he then exhibited them in the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, where Americans were astounded that the magnificent landscape existed not too far away.
Zion Canyon played a part in Taft’s 1909 proclamation that the area would become a National Park.
No 6. Mount Mazama Before Collapse (1939) by Paul Clark Rockwood
Mount Mazama—the volcano which led to the formation of Crater Lake National Park—is vividly portrayed in this painting by Paul Clark Rockwood.
This painting is an artistic rendering of what the massive eruption, which happened around 7,700 years ago, might’ve looked like. This eruption was one of the largest eruptions on Earth within the last 12,000 years. Mount Mazama is the second painting in a series of three.
It currently resides in the Crater Lake National Park Museum in Oregon.
No. 7. Administration Building, Frijoles Canyon (1935–36) by
German-born American artist Helmuth Naumer is best known for his New Mexico landscapes such as this one. The depicted area of Frijoles Canyon is now part of Bandelier National Monument in New Mexico.
Naumer was actually employed by the National Park Service, which at the time had just recently opened up visitor centers in the area. His 14 pastel works, including this one, remain in the Bandelier museum collections.
Administration Building, Frijoles Canyon was also featured on a Forever Postage Stamp in 2016.
No. 8. Grand Canyon National Park (1926) by Howard Russell Baker
In addition to his famous seascapes and paintings of solar eclipses, Impressionist Howard Russel Butler also created a number of landscapes. In Grand Canyon National Park, a section of the famous canyon is painted with an atmospheric pink glow, as if captured in the early morning or around sunset.
The Union Pacific Railroad commissioned him to create this Grand Canyon painting in order to promote tourism for their “Grand Circle Tour”—a route which took travelers to many landmarks including the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.
No. 9. The Rocky Mountains, Lander's Peak (1863) by Albert Bierstadt
This massive 73-inch by 120-inch painting is yet another painting by Bierstadt which put the glorious American West on full display.
Here, he paints an idyllic pasture filled with animals and Native American dwellings. The picture is blanketed with a golden hue, and the eye goes to the magnificent, shining waterfall in the midground of the painting. Hovering above the pasture are the massive Rockies.
No. 10. Muir Glacier, Alaska (1887) by Thomas Hill
Muir Glacier, located in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Alaska, is the subject of this 1887 work by British-American landscape painter Thomas Hill.
Although loosely associated with the New York-based Hudson River School, Hill primarily made landscapes in California and elsewhere in the West. In fact, he made his first journey into the Yosemite Valley with famous photographer Carlton Watkins, whose images were very instrumental in preserving the area as a National Park.
The National Park Service, and the areas that it protects, has a fascinating history that can be explored through many media nowadays. However, it’s amazing to take a moment and imagine what it would be like, as an artist in the 1800s, to encounter these landscapes and try to translate them into a two-dimensional surface. These paintings let us experience, even in a small way, some of the most magnificent areas of the United States.