Artists of Yosemite National Park Leave Lasting Legacy

By Jill Hedgecock

Many 19th century artists who documented the natural beauty of Yosemite National Park using paint brushes and cameras left a legacy still treasured today. Through their art, these talented portraitists inspired the preservation of this unique place with all its distinctive rock formations, lakes and waterfalls. Their work even fueled the expansion of the West. 

Among the first to paint Yosemite was Thomas Hill (1829-1908), who visited the area in the mid-1860s. Thomas Hill’s 1888 painting, Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, illustrates why artists still flock to Yosemite to capture its beauty. The art studio later established by Hill in 1884 near Mariposa Grove is now the site of the Wawona Visitor Center.

View of Yosemite Valley (1871) by Thomas Hill.

Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) is best known for his large and overly romanticized paintings of the American West. Bierstadt’s Domes of the Yosemite was his largest canvas at 9.5 feet high by 15 feet long. His paintings reportedly inspired Americans to protect Yosemite from development. 

Along with many others, Bierstadt’s and Hill’s depictions of the American West have been described as a catalyst for Western expansion in the second half of the 19th century, while the art of Thomas Moran (1837-1926) inspired Congress to preserve the natural wonders of the U.S., spurring the formation of the National Park Service. Similarly, Ansel Adams’ 1927 photograph, Monolith, the Face of Half Dome, not only made the public and art world take notice of him, but also galvanized the beginnings of the American conservation movement. 

By 1941, Adams had established himself as a preeminent photographer of the American West, and the National Park Service commissioned him to create a photo mural for the Department of the Interior. The mural project was permanently abandoned after Adams became a photographic consultant during World War II, but the mural photographs, including one taken in Yosemite (Trees with Snow on Branches, “Half Dome, Apple Orchard, Yosemite”), remain in the National Archives.

Indian Life at Mirror Lake (1878) by Constance Gordon-Cumming.

Although often overlooked, women and non-white artists have added diverse perspectives to the depictions of Yosemite. Constance Gordon-Cumming, who held the first art exhibit in Yosemite, completed 50 watercolors during her three-month stay in 1878, including Indian Life at Mirror Lake. Grafton Tyler Brown was the first black painter known to depict scenes of the Pacific Northwest and the West, including his 1886 work, View of Yosemite Valley. In 1864, he was one of only 55 lithographers in the entire United States. He is attributed with being a forerunner in the art of color printing. 

Because of the early work of Yosemite artists, the scenic views of El Capitan, Bridalveil Falls, Cathedral Rocks, Half Dome and Mirror Lake were preserved for generations to come. 

Today, the Valley Visitor Center or Happy Isles Art & Nature Center offers daily art classes for all levels between April and October for adults, and June through August for children.

Sunset in the Yosemite Valley (1865) by Albert Bierstadt.