Art & the Conservation Movement

Close up image of a canvas with someone painting on it.
Art had a significant influence on the progression of the early conservation movement and continues to influence how visitors experience parks today.

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The American conservation movement found its origin in the establishment of Yellowstone as the country’s first national park in 1872. It was a project that began with a small group of outdoor enthusiasts seeking to protect their favorite recreational spaces but soon grew to a nationwide ethic. Today, the sprit of original conservationists like Gifford Pinchot, the “father of American forestry,” and George Perkins Marsh, an American diplomat under Abraham Lincoln who is often lauded as the first American environmentalist, is embodied in our national parks.

It took much effort to expand the conservation movement from the dreams of a few avid outdoor enthusiasts to today, where more than 330 million people visit America's national parks each year. People needed to see the natural beauty that foresters and conservationists alike set out to protect to understand the importance of protecting these special places.
Many associate nature-writing and its early practitioners like Henry David Thoreau and John Muir with the spreading of messages in the early environmental movement, but art and landscape painting were also an integral part. In a time before computers and instant transfers of information, portraiture and landscape painting were just a few of the ways to show wide audiences the unique and impressive features of the American landscape. Painters had the unique ability to re-create the unexplored corners of the nation’s geology and physical geography for people who may not have been able to travel far distances to see these wondrous places. In doing so, they inspired others to see the importance of protecting these lands for the sake of everyone, not just the rugged enthusiasts who discovered them.
Close up of a desk with a box containing semi-open drawers and a blue book sitting on top.
A box of colored pencils and a draftsmen's handbook sit on a table in the drafting room of Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site.

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Art played a key role in protecting America’s great scenic places. In the 19th century, the artists of the Hudson River School became famous for their landscape painting depicting vivid trees, calm lakes, and towering mountains. Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole and fellow painters Frederic Church, Sanford Robinson Gifford, Albert Bierstadt, and Thomas Moran set a new standard for landscape painting. Bierstadt and Moran painted many of the West's scenic highlights, including the Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon.

Around the same time, Frederick Law Olmsted emerged as the father of landscape architecture. He designed many iconic parks, including the Golden Gate Park in San Francisco and Central Park in New York, and was active in the early conservation movement.

Through their works, these artists helped popularize a love of nature. The people of the United States began to recognize the beauty and importance of natural spaces, and dozens of national parks were established to protect them.

In the 20th century, photography became more popular as technology progressed and became more accessible. Soon, it became the main art form of the conservation movement. Today, when we think of the relationship between art and conservation, we often think of Ansel Adams, the 20th-century environmentalist and photographer. His works capturing Yosemite National Park and the famous sites of Yellowstone and the Tetons are so deeply loved by the American public that there are galleries dedicated to his work.

Man painting a canvas on an easel along a shoreline.
An artist creates a landscape painting at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska.

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Today, art still plays an important role in conservation efforts. From the Artist-in-Residence programs offered in parks across the country, to the galleries found in parks, to the familiar sights of cameras and landscape photography that can be found at any lookout point in the country, both professionals and amateurs are dedicated to capturing the beauty of America’s lands using the visual arts.

Last updated: May 9, 2018