Days Past: Picture this: Grand Canyon in historic art

“El Tovar, Grand Canyon,” by Louis Akin.

Courtesy image via Sharlot Hall Museum

“El Tovar, Grand Canyon,” by Louis Akin.

When Lewis and Clark made their epic 1804-1806 journey across the country, they did not have an artist with them.

They encountered Native people, plants and animals, breathtaking scenery and fantastic geologic features beyond anything they could have imagined. They did a decent job of sketching some of what they found, but still struggled to convey the uniqueness of the American West.

Subsequent explorers beginning around 1830 made sure to include an artist. And artists – from the Eastern United States and Europe – were eager to take up the challenge.

Soon after the Southwest became part of the United States, the Army began a series of explorations. In 1851, Capt. Lorenzo Sitgreaves was assigned to survey a route from Zuni on the Arizona/New Mexico border across to the Colorado River and beyond to California. With him was Philadelphia artist Richard Kern.

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“The Explorer,” by H.B. Möllhausen - courtesy of Amon Carter Museum.

Historians credit Mr. Kern with being the first artist to sketch the Grand Canyon, even though he never got within 50 miles. His sketch from a hillside north of the San Francisco Peaks captured, on the far horizon, the cliff face of the North Rim. It is a decent sketch, but Mr. Kern deserves recognition even more for his bravery.

Richard Kern, along with his brothers Edward and Benjamin, had accompanied John C. Frémont on his disastrous 1848-1849 trek across the Colorado Rockies. Benjamin Kern and mountain guide Bill Williams were killed by Natives. Undeterred, Richard Kern continued to volunteer for exploring trips. His trip with Sitgreaves came under attack several times with only minor injuries. Richard joined a third expedition in 1853 to accompany Lt. John Gunnison on a reconnaissance across central Utah. That summer Lt. Gunnison and Richard Kern were slain. Dangerous work, this business of expeditionary artist.

In 1858, Lt. Joseph Ives brought an expedition up the Colorado River, and then overland into the Grand Canyon at Diamond Creek. With him were cartographer Friedrich von Egloffstein and artist Balduin Möllhausen.

They were the first explorers ever to see the Grand Canyon from the bottom. As Egloffstein and Möllhausen sketched, Ives took scientific readings and geologist John Newberry studied the geologic structure of the Canyon. All the while, they were mindful of the fate of the Kern brothers, Williams and Gunnison; often, Möllhausen sat up at night heavily armed, ready for an attack that never came.

Later, Lt. Ives issued a report in which he declared the Grand Canyon region to be completely “valueless,” and the few sketches of the Canyon that he published conveyed a sense of darkness and danger. Inexplicably, beautiful watercolors by Möllhausen were never published, and were lost and forgotten for more than 100 years.

So far in our story, we have very little to show for efforts to sketch the Grand Canyon, and the next expedition provided nothing at all: In 1869, John Wesley Powell made the first of two river trips through the Grand Canyon. Powell did not take an artist, which was probably just as well since that trip was a near disaster.

Powell, determined to do it again, made a second foray in 1871-1872, this time with 17-year-old artist Frederick Dellenbaugh. The youngster produced some worthy sketches of the Canyon and the surrounding areas.

However, when Powell returned to civilization in 1872 he learned that his rival Ferdinand Hayden had come back from Yellowstone with paintings by one of the most famous artists of the day, Thomas Moran. Based on Moran’s work and Hayden’s testimony, in 1872 Congress designated Yellowstone as the world’s first National Park.

Powell promptly forgot about Dellenbaugh’s work and went courting Moran. Powell brought Moran to the Canyon in 1873, and Moran began producing beautiful sketches and paintings, which Powell used in his published story of conquering the mighty Colorado River. Finally, the world began to see what the Grand Canyon looks like.

Powell’s protégé, Clarence Dutton, came out in 1880 with artist William Henry Holmes and produced what has been called the most beautiful book ever published by the government, The Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District – beautiful for Dutton’s words, and for sketches by Holmes (and Thomas Moran who contributed, as well). By this time, the tide had turned. No longer was the Grand Canyon the “valueless” wasteland of Lt. Ives; it had become a place people were eager to see for themselves.

As visitors began arriving in steadily increasing numbers, the Fred Harvey Company and the Santa Fe Railway provided accommodations and transportation. To attract tourists, the railway engaged artists including Moran, Louis Akin, Carl Oscar Borg, Grace Betts, Bertha Dressler, and countless others, to create art for advertising purposes. Other artists came to try their hand at the Canyon’s scenery, and for many years, the Hotel El Tovar maintained a thriving art gallery.

As we entered the 20th Century, Grand Canyon art and tourism were thriving, but something was missing. Yellowstone had been a National Park since 1872; a dozen other parks had been established by Congress. The Grand Canyon was not among them.

In 1916, the National Park Service was established and in early 1917 the first director, Stephen Mather, organized a conference on the National Parks in Washington. He called upon Clarence Dutton’s artist, William Henry Holmes – who had become director of the National Gallery of Art – to organize an exhibit: Art of the National Parks. Holmes loaded the show with paintings of the Grand Canyon. Finally, in 1919, based at least in part on the beauty of the art works, Congress made the Grand Canyon the nation’s 16th National Park.

And the art of the Grand Canyon continues, of course, with painters there virtually every day. For more of the story and a visual presentation on Grand Canyon art, visit Sharlot Hall Museum at 2 p.m. Saturday, May 7, for a free lecture titled: “The View from Point Sublime – Art of the Grand Canyon,” presented by Sharlot Hall Museum volunteer Dave Lewis, who has spent over eight years as a volunteer park ranger at the Grand Canyon.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit proposed articles to dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 ext. 14, or via email at dayspastshmcourier@gmail.com for information.