Works of art have played an integral role in the history of Yosemite as a national park, delighting the visitors who encounter them and inspiring the creation of new art. In addition to being a world-class plein air and studio painter, James McGrew is an educator and naturalist, ideally suited to write about the influence of art on Yosemite for The Nature of Yosemite: A Visual Journey, my new book from Yosemite Conservancy, in which this essay appears. — Robb Hirsch, author
For many centuries, native people created basketry and obsidian points of such fine craftsmanship and beauty that they stand as Yosemite’s original artworks. Later, the first published representational art depicting Yosemite resulted from the entrepreneurial efforts of James Mason Hutchings in the mid-19th century. In 1855 he brought to the Valley artist Thomas Ayres, who portrayed the landscape in a series of illustrations, and then in 1859 Hutchings brought in Charles Weed, who captured the first photographs of the area. These images accompanied articles in Hutchings’s California Magazine, offering the public a visual reference of Yosemite’s legendary wonders. From this point on, art influenced the visitation, preservation, and management of Yosemite.
In The Nature of Yosemite: A Visual Journey, Robb Hirsch provides an enriching experience by calling on knowledgeable friends—all experts in their fields—to contribute insights into the natural wonders on view in his photographs. The images and essays work together to draw readers into a deeper relationship with their favorite national park.
In the wake of initial portrayals, other artists ventured to Yosemite and created works instrumental in establishing the world’s first park of its kind and the foundation for our national park system. In 1861 photographer Carleton Watkins made mammoth plate photographs, which were exhibited in New York and inspired the celebrated Albert Bierstadt to travel west and paint Yosemite in 1863. Bierstadt painted plein air oil sketches that he later used as reference in conjunction with photography and artistic license to orchestrate grandiose, romantic studio paintings, such as Night at Valley View (Yosemite Museum). Numerous art historians have noted the connections between these artworks and influential U.S. political leaders. Congress and perhaps even President Lincoln observed Watkins’s photos, potentially helping persuade for the establishment of the Yosemite Grant on June 30, 1864.
In his commissioned management plan for the grant, titled Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove: A Preliminary Report, 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote, “It was… when the paintings of Bierstadt and the photographs of Watkins, both productions of the War time, had given to the people on the Atlantic some idea of the sublimity of the Yo Semite, and of the stateliness of the neighboring Sequoia grove, that consideration was first given to the danger that such scenes might become private property.” Soon thereafter, many famous artists painted Yosemite, including Thomas Moran, whose paintings inspired preservation of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Zion. Of greater significance to Yosemite was Thomas Hill, whose monumental canvases rivaled Bierstadt’s in status without resorting to such melodramatic distortions. Hill’s mature paintings, influenced by the Barbizon school, convey the power, light, and scale of Yosemite.
As painters spread awareness of the Yosemite landscape, luring visitors and entrepreneurs, conservationist John Muir recognized the need for federal protection of the watersheds surrounding the Yosemite Grant. To persuade his audience, Muir used photography by George Fiske and paintings by Thomas Hill and others to illustrate his eloquent writing as he campaigned to establish Yosemite National Park, designated October 1, 1890.
Throughout the 20th century, artists continued interpreting Yosemite in diverse styles. Modernism simplified Yosemite’s iconic features into expressive color and abstract form. Other artists created political commentary on management, crowding, and exploitation. Many examples exist in the Yosemite archives. Ansel Adams, the 21st century modernist whose name arguably is most synonymous with Yosemite, simplified compositional elements and manipulated his images through filters, dodging, and burning. His unique style focused on emotional impact as he expressed his personal passion, working tirelessly as an environmentalist. Adams’s images inspired the public and politicians alike.
By 1980, Yosemite management progressed from visitor-centric manipulation of park resources to allowing natural processes to prevail. Historical images have proven invaluable as they offer managers documentation for understanding a changing landscape influenced by climate change, fire ecology, meadow and forest succession, rockfall, river hydrology, and other processes over time. Artwork has also inspired awareness for park cultural resources.
Early artists documented Ahwahneechee culture as they included local native people in their landscapes. As the mainstream art market grew more interested in works created by American Indians during the 20th century, basketry flourished into larger, more beautifully elaborate artworks popularized especially by Lucy Telles, Carrie Bethel, and Julia Parker. Historical artwork has influenced initial preservation as well as inadvertently benefited park management and understanding of natural and cultural resources.
Recent advances in digital technology have brought changes to how artists capture their impressions of Yosemite. Previously, only professional photographers could create and publish quality images. However, proliferation of smartphones, digital cameras, image-editing software, the internet, and social media enable not only pros but almost anyone to create and publish stunning images. As a result, Yosemite’s art progresses from spectatorship to active participation, allowing many to connect with nature and interpret their own experiences. As digital photography both benefits and adds competition for photographers, it has also opened new opportunity for teaching workshops and reaching a new generation of visual storytellers. Likewise, a growing trend in plein air painting leads more people outdoors, where they may stand for hours in a single location, slow down, and experience Yosemite more deeply. As our modern digital society disconnects from nature, perhaps we crave such opportunities more than ever.
My goal in painting Yosemite is to carry on the legacy of historical artists and photographers who have inspired appreciation and protection for more than 150 years. I hope to inspire others to experience their own connections to Yosemite and ultimately help preserve the environment far beyond park borders.
James McGrew is an artist and educator whose lifelong passion for Yosemite grew out of childhood visits beginning at just four months old. His undergraduate and graduate work includes degrees in biology, chemistry, geology, and environmental education. He combines his art and science backgrounds to carry on the legacy of 19th century artists who helped establish Yosemite and other national parks. Working mostly in plein air, James has received prestigious awards and exhibited in many solo shows, galleries, and museums, as well as in top national and international exhibitions. His artwork hangs in collections around the world. James is a signature member of the American Impressionist Society and the Laguna Plein Air Painters Association, and his work has been featured in most major art publications. Since 1996, he has shared his knowledge as a summer seasonal Yosemite interpretive park ranger.
Robb Hirsch is a scientist and photographer who lives with his wife, Regina, and son, Noah, in Groveland, California, where they founded Mountain Sage, a coffeehouse, art gallery, music venue, plant nursery, and garden. Robb’s images and more information can be found at RobbHirschPhoto.com, and he is @robbhirsch on Instagram.
Header photo of Bridal Veil Falls at Yosemite by Robb Hirsch, from The Nature of Yosemite, courtesy Yosemite Conservancy.