Painters of Grand Canyon    


Although it was home to indigenous people for centuries and visited by Spaniards as early as 1540, America as a country knew virtually nothing of the Grand Canyon until the late 19th century. Now considered by many to be the nation's most amazing natural wonder, few were aware of Arizona's Canyon until 1869, when John Wesley Powell became the first to travel its full length by boat.

In 1871 Powell made a second trip accompanied by the young artist Frederick Dellenbaugh (1853-1935). His third trip was in 1873, when he introduced the Grand Canyon to landscape artist Thomas Moran (1837-1926), who portrayed its grandeur to the public. The Canyon's grandiose scale and hues seemed to manifest the romantic ideals of the day, and it was transformed into a symbol of nature as a moral force. Moran and his work were influential in compelling President Theodore Roosevelt to declare the site a National Monument, calling it "the one great sight that every American should see." By 1919 Congress had established Grand Canyon National Park.

II. Grand Canyon Painters | Return to Top

Moran is without doubt the artist most strongly associated with the Grand Canyon, but many other important artists have painted its vistas. Painters of the Canyon who have been highly recognized at auction include: Thomas Moran, Gunnar Widforss (1879-1934), Oscar Berninghaus (1874-1952),
Ernest Blumenschein (1874-1960), Carl O. Borg (1879-1947), Gerald Cassidy (1869-1934), Samuel Colman (1832-1920), Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936), Arthur W. Dow (1852-1922), Clark Hulings (1922-2011), Wilson Hurley (1924-2008), George G. Symons (1861-1930), William R. Leigh (1866-1955), Edward Potthast (1857-1927), Louis Akin (1868-1913), Joseph Abbrescia (1936-), Walter Ufer (1876-1936).

As early as the 1540s, Spanish explorers had wandered near the area in search of the legendary Seven Cities of Cibola. In 1776 a Franciscan missionary, Francisco Garces, spent several months preaching to the native people in the area of Havasu Canyon. In 1857, Lieutenant J.C. Ives arrived at the Canyon and was the first government official to explore its floor. Among his crew were artists Baron F.W. von Efloffstein (1824-1898) and Heinrich Balduin Mollhausen (1825-1905), Germans who had been exploring the West with expeditions for several years. Interestingly, Ives declared the Grand Canyon would forever be an unvisited and ‘profitless locality’. Explorations of the West before the Civil War were mostly by military personnel, charged with securing and mapping the region, and determining passable routes for trade, immigrants, and railroads. Arizona was organized into a separate Territory in 1863, but there was little motivation for visitors to become residents.

Artists continued to visit the Canyon from the 1850s onward, but of most significance was Moran’s work with the Powell expedition. When Moran traveled to Utah from his home in New York to rendezvous with the survey party, he had been West only twice, but he was among the most prominent artists of his day. Two years earlier he had been part of the first official survey of Yellowstone, becoming the first painter to portray that remarkable area. His watercolors of Yellowstone were exhibited to Congress, resulting in the region being set aside as a ‘pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people’, and setting the precedent for all national parks afterward, including the Grand Canyon. Moran’s major painting, "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone", became the first landscape by an American artist to hang in the U.S.Capitol in Washington. Powell and Moran envisioned similar successes for Arizona’s Grand Canyon. Moran produced a Grand Canyon companion to the Yellowstone picture, titled "The Chasm of the Colorado" which was sold to Congress as well. It may be said that Thomas Moran set the artistic standard for later artists depicting the Canyon.

Lesser-known contemporaries of Moran who painted at about the same time were Samuel Colman (1832-1920) and William Henry Holmes (1846-1933). Colman, a student of famous Hudson River landscape painter Asher B. Durand, took advantage of the new transcontinental railroad and traveled West to paint in 1870 and again in the late 1880s. Holmes traveled like Moran with the U.S.Geological survey to Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, and was as much a scientist as an artist. The work of men such as Moran, Colman, and Holmes helped to develop the understanding and appreciation of the Grand Canyon, and set the stage for the arrival of tourists.

III. Railroad Journeys | Return to Top

Many followed in Moran’s footsteps, thanks in part to the Santa Fe Railroad Company's campaign to attract passengers to its Southwest route. Starting in 1892, the SFRR hired Moran, William R. Leigh, Louis Akin, Elliott Daingerfield (1859-1932), Gunnar Mauritz Widforss (1879-1934), Edward Potthast and others to travel to the Canyon and paint scenes that were produced as lithographs and on calendars, menus, and other visible items distributed through out the country. The railroad’s famous advertising director, William H. Simpson, had the idea to sponsor artists’ visits in return for paintings, and systematically took artists from the East to the West via the Santa Fe Railroad. The purpose was to expose Easterners to its dramatic landscape, via paintings, with the hope that they would then wish to travel West on the railroad to see it for themselves. Thus, the Santa Fe Railroad became a major patron of artists visiting Arizona.

In the spring of 1901, thirteen artists, including Thomas Moran and George Inness Jr. (1854-1926) were treated by the Railroad to a three-week excursion to the Canyon, complete with a lecturer who escorted them to the most picturesque sites.

The best publicized artists’ journey took place in 1910, when a group of five prominent Eastern artists including Moran, Elliott Daingerfield, Frederick B. Williams (1871-1956), De Witt Parshall (1864-1956), and Edward H. Potthast (1857-1927) were selected to depict the Grand Canyon for the railroad. In an early instance of corporate patronization of the arts, the Santa Fe Railroad Company and the American Lithographic Company arranged for the artists to meet in Chicago, and then travel by private Pullman car to the Canyon. There they were housed at the railroad-owned rambling El Tovar hotel on the South Rim. The group’s arrival was dramatic in itself. It was reported that the artists were led to the Rim with their eyes closed, so that the vision in its entirety might burst upon them for the first time. They were taken on a mule trip down the Bright Angel Trail where the noted Canyon folklorist John Hance served as their guide. The railroad also arranged for each of them to have studio space at the edge of the Canyon, where each could have private working areas. Accompanying the group West was Nina Spaulding of the Toledo Art Museum. In her notes she documents the historical significance of the artists’ venture: “Never before had so large a group of serious artists made such a pilgrimage to the Far West with the avowed intention of studying a given point of their own country.” The resulting paintings, together with Grand Canyon views by E.J. Dressler (1859-1907), George Innes Jr. (1853-1926), George McCord (1848-1909), William Ritchel (1864-1948), and Joseph Henry Sharp (1859-1953) were exhibited at a number of institutions, such as the Cincinnati Art Museum, in 1912.

Although he had traveled West previously on assignment as an illustrator for Harper’s, the 1910 group trip was Potthast’s first to the Grand Canyon. The journey had significant influence on his art and gave him a new identity as an artist of the West. Many consider his Canyon landscapes to be among Potthast’s most original and significant accomplishments. His painting, "Looking Across the Grand Canyon", now held in the Phoenix Art Museum, is one such example. Potthast made a later visit to the Canyon and his commitment to the subject matter led him to become a founding member of a group called the Society of Men Who Paint the West, also known as the Society of Painters of the Far West. Members included the above-mentioned artists who had exhibited following the notable 1910 painting trip.

IV. Additional Artists | Return to Top

Countless painters were drawn to the Canyon to paint its wonders and its people, although many expressed trepidation at the daunting task. In 1929 artist William Robinson Leigh (1866-1955) spent a month camped on the South rim sketching and painting, and while attempting to capture a fleeting sunset lamented: "...What a wretched makeshift these paltry pigments. How hopeless to attempt; what inconceivable impudence to dream of imitating anything so ineffable! It challenges man’s utmost skill; it mocks and defies his puny efforts to grasp and perpetuate, through art, its inimitable grandeur.” Woodblock artist Gustave Baumann (1881- 1971), a contemporary of Leigh’s, considered the Grand Canyon to be an ‘artist’s nightmare’. After attempting several sketches, he retreated from the rim, grumbling “You see a wonderful composition and when you look back, it’s gone. See how fast the clouds are moving. This is the reason nobody can paint the canyon.” Nonetheless, painters continued to put on paper and canvas a myriad of interpretations of the Canyon's infinite variety of forms, colors, and moods and inhabitants.

Grafton Tyler Brown (1841-1918) was the first recognized African- American artist in the American West. He was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where his father was a free black laborer. In addition to the Grand Canyon, Brown painted panoramic landscape scenes in Oregon, Washington, California, British Columbia, and the Yellowstone region. In 1886, he painted in Arizona including an oil titled "Grand Canyon".

Many of the early painters are best known today through their association with the Taos Society of Artists or similar groups. Oscar Berninghaus (1875-1952), a founding member of the Taos Society, traveled frequently to the Canyon with the support of the Santa Fe Railroad. Ernest Blumenschein (1874-1960) was also included in the SFRR’s art program. One of the first European-American artists to settle in Taos, Blumenschein began creating works for the company in 1911. Other members of the Taos group, Walter Ufer (1876-1936)> and Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936) also painted the Canyon.

Walter Ufer (1876-1936) was born in Louisville, Kentucky, the son of an immigrant German gunsmith and engraver, and became one of the most successful and famous of the Taos Society artists. He moved to New Mexico soon after he made his first trip to Taos in 1914, at the age of 38, where he had been commissioned to paint by art patron Carter Harrison. Although he had been a studio artist, the brilliant sunlight and vivid landscapes of the West soon converted him to plein-air painting. He brightened the colors of his palette and became known for his light-filled oils of the Pueblo Indians and the Taos Valley countryside. Ufer’s painting, ‘Grand Canyon From El Tovar’ (1905), is an example of such light-filled work. His preoccupation with light represents a late flowering of the ‘glare’ aesthetic –an emphasis on brilliant effects of light that reinforce strong outlines. Ufer recognized the impact of Anglo culture on the Native population, and this emphasis was urged on him by his patron, Harrison.

Eanger Irving Couse (1866-1936) was a native of Michigan whose fascination with Native American subjects began in childhood, when he sketched and studied the native Ojibwa of his home state. Drawn to the Southwest by its landscape and the opportunity to paint the Indians of the area, Couse in 1902 began summering in Taos. He settled there permanently in 1927 and became a charter member and first president of the Taos Society of Artists, and the most successful of all the Taos artists. His career was greatly advanced by the patronage of the Santa Fe Railway, for whom he provided calendar and poster images for many years. His notable work, ‘At the Canyon’s Rim’ (1918), is held in the Santa Fe Railroad Collection of Southwestern Art. The Native Americans who stand at the rim overlooking the massive gorge in the picture recall the generations of inhabitants who preceded European-Americans in the Colorado River region. They also demonstrate how the artists of the twentieth century and the Santa Fe Railway capitalized on the Indians’ uniqueness and their appeal in the art of the Southwest. The landscape of the Grand Canyon is made even more distinctive by the Native American presence, lending it an aura of both ancient mystery and contemporary familiarity.

Los Angeles painters John Bond Francisco (1863-1931) and Santa Barbara artist Carl Oscar Borg (1879-1947) also traveled to the canyon with the SFRR’s help, as did Hanson Duvall Puthuff (1875-1972). Many artists of Puthuff’s generation earned part of their living as mural painters. Edgar Alwin Payne (1883-1947), for example, worked in this form throughout the early part of the 20th century, both in Chicago and in Laguna Beach, California, where he helped found that community’s Art Association. In 1916, the SFRR asked him to produce views of the Grand Canyon for them. Payne traveled the Southwest frequently after that, changing from an impressionistic style to a bolder, more cubistic one.

Not all Grand Canyon views were made during the summer tourist season, however. George Gardner Symons (1862-1930) specialized in snow scenes, a fine example being "Grand Canyon" (1914) held by the Fleischer Museum in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Among the small group of early 20th century artists residing in Arizona, a notable number were women. One interesting woman painter of the Grand Canyon wasEdith Hamlin (1902-1992). Through the federally sponsored WPA art program she painted murals in California in the 1930s, where she married Maynard Dixon (1875-1946). They settled in Tucson and made regular trips to the Grand Canyon, which was near their summer home. Bostonian Marion Boyd Allen (1862-1941) also traveled and painted widely throughout the United States and Canada in the 1920s and 1930s, including to the Grand Canyon. The earliest woman painter of the Canyon was Kate T. Cory (1861-1958), who arrived in 1905. Encouraged in New York by Louis Akin, Cory moved to Northern Arizona to study the Hopi and was the only woman from Arizona to exhibit in New York City at the famous 1913 Armory Show, where her painting, "Arizona Desert" was shown. She is also noted for her 1914 work, "Eagle Hunting, Grand Canyon".

Of course, not all artists of the Grand Canyon visited it through Santa Fe sponsorship. Many foreign visitors came in the early part of the century, just as they do today. Japanese printmaker Hiroshi Yoshida visited the Canyon in 1914 and produced a series of evocative woodblock prints, now in the Grand Canyon National Park collection.

Some went to the Southwest for health reasons. Diagnosed with tuberculosis and given a life expectancy of six months, Gerald Cassidy (1879-1934) went to a sanitarium in Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1899. He regained his health but remained in the West. In the early 1900s, he settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and by 1915 had earned a national reputation for realistic Indian and western scenes, including depictions of the Grand Canyon in Arizona. He was only the third Anglo artist to establish residency in Santa Fe. At this time, he changed his signature from Ira Diamond Cassidy to Gerald Cassidy, and placed the sun symbol of the Tewa Indians between his first and last name.

V. Calling the Grand Canyon Home | Return to Top

As amenities improved it became possible not only to visit the area, but also to live there. The first artist to make the Grand Canyon his home was Louis Akin (1868-1913), a Portland, Oregonian who had been working in New York until a SFRR agent invited him to Arizona to paint the Hopi people in 1903. Akin spent eighteen months among the Hopi, forming affinities with their culture that were to remain with him for the rest of his life. He returned to the Grand Canyon in 1905 with a commission from the SFRR to paint the El Tovar Hotel, and later made Flagstaff his permanent home. His work, "El Tovar Hotel, Grand Canyon" (1906), became one of his most recognized images.

The next painter to make the Grand Canyon his home was Swedish born Gunnar Mauritz Widforss (1879-1934). William Henry Holmes, director of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, had suggested to Widforss that he direct his attention to the landscapes of the national parks. First awed by Yosemite, Widforss went on to make his home in the Grand Canyon, living first with Emery and Ellsworth Kolb, artists themselves, who were particularly noted for being the first to attempt motion photography in the canyon. Widforss’ favorite medium was watercolor rather than oil, and he traversed the trails of the canyon, creating views from its floor.

Another artist who lived at the Grand Canyon, at least for a time, was Warren Rollins (1861-1962). Born in Carson City, Nevada, Rollins traveled throughout the Southwest where he lived with a number of Indian tribes. He then settled in Pasadena until the Santa Fe Railroad Company lured him to Arizona with a studio at the Grand Canyon. Some refer to him as the ‘dean of Santa Fe and Taos art colonies’.

Bruce Aiken (b. 1950) began work in 1973 for the National Park Service at the Grand Canyon tending the park’s water supply at the bottom of the Canyon at Roaring Springs, where he and his wife, Mary, have raised three children. His long intimacy with the Grand Canyon - its geology, wildlife, and the river that formed it, is reflected in his paintings.

VI. The Canyon Abstracted | Return to Top

Although the dominant mode of representing the Grand Canyon has been naturalistic throughout the 20th century, its remarkable formations and vibrant colors have inspired an array of abstract treatments. Among the first to consider such an approach was Arthur Wesley Dow (1857-1922), a modernist Massachusetts painter who inspired Georgia O’Keeffe’s early work. Dow was influenced by Asian art and incorporated Eastern visual practices into his own ideas. Another modernist, Paul Burlin (1886-1969) was the first to apply new notions of cubist form to the abstract elements in the Grand Canyon site and areas around it. He arrived there shortly after his work had been exhibited in the famed Armory Show in New York, and his forward-looking style was important for other artists working in the area. Raymond Jonson (1891-1982) was dedicated to modernist painting and through his work as a professor of art at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque also had considerable influence on later portrayals of the canyon and areas around it.

From F.W. von Egloffsteins’s gloomy 1857 images of the lower Grand Canyon to the bright watercolors by Gunnar Mauritz Widforss (1879-1934) in the 1920s and 30s, to Ed Mell’s (b. 1942) abstract panoramas of the present day, artists have produced an endless diversity of works depicting the canyon. Contemporary painters who continue to visit the canyon include Mell, Clark Hulings (1922-2011), Wilson Hurley (1924-2008), Frank Mason (1921-2009), P.A.Nisbet (b. 1948), Bruce Aiken, Joseph Abbrescia (1936-2005), and Earl Carpenter (b. 1931). Hulings’ work has continued the region’s mythic association with the Old West, evoking nostalgia in paintings such as Grand Canyon-Kaibab Trail (1976), maintaining the strong Western tradition popularized by Charles Russell and Frederic Remington at the turn of the century. Joseph Abbrescia is based in Kalispell, Montana, but continues to travel widely and is a popular teacher of painting workshops in many places, among them Scottsdale, Arizona.

In 2001, Forbes magazine sponsored a trip putting 15 artists on rafts and sent them down the Colorado River to paint and to bring focus to the environment of the Grand Canyon. The result was 200 landscapes, for an exhibition at the Forbes Magazine Galleries in New York, and later in Burlingame, California. The artists included: Bruce Aiken, Joseph Bohler (b. 1938), Marcia Burtt (b. 1941), John Cogan (b. 1953), M. L. Coleman (b. 1941), Gil Dellinger (b. 1942), Glenna Hartmann, Mary Helsaple, Greg Hull (b. 1950), Scott Jennings (b. 1952), Kevin Macpherson (b. 1956), Eric Michaels (b. 1949), David Schwindt (b. 1949) and Matt Smith (b. 1960). Impressionist painter Curt Walters (b. 1950) of Sedona who led the trip said, "You either have to hike it or take the river to be able to see, really get into, the Grand Canyon. The beauty is unbelievable.”

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Credit for much of the above information is given to Joni L. Kinsey, whose text appears in the book ‘The Majesty of the Grand Canyon, 150 Years in Art’; as well as to Patricia Broder and her book ‘The American West: The Modern Vision’; and Sandra D’Emilio and Suzan Campbell’s work: Visions and Visionaries: The Art and Artists of the Santa Fe Railway.


Artists with a connection to Painters of Grand Canyon
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