Dramatic landscapes have inspired great art around the world. The unique and awe-inspiring scenery of America’s national parks is no exception. In fact, national parks and great artists have always had a special relationship.
From the earliest days of European American Westward Expansion, artists joined explorers and scientists to document the “unknown” lands. Most Americans’ first notion that such places existed was from seeing a painting, either in person or reproduced in a magazine.
The towering cliffs of Zion Canyon were so remote and inaccessible, that the nation was not introduced to this landscape until the turn of the twentieth century.
Frederick S. Dellenbaugh was an early artist and topographer of the American West. He served as an assistant topographer with Major John Wesley Powell's second expedition of the Colorado River from 1871-1873.
Thirty years later, during the summer of 1903, Dellenbaugh again visited Zion Canyon and completed a series of paintings based on what he saw. In 1904, he published an article about the area in the popular Scribner's Magazine entitled “A New Valley of Wonders.” Dellenbaugh’s images and words raised awareness about the majesty of the canyon and influenced some to petition for its protection as a national park. The canyon was proclaimed as Mukuntuweap National Monument by President William Howard Taft in 1909 and, in 1919, Congress changed the name and established Zion National Park.
One of Dellenbaugh's early pieces is held in the park’s museum collection.
Howard Russell Butler
The impressionist Howard Russell Butler is known for his paintings of seascapes and the eclipse of the sun, but he also painted landscapes. In 1926, the Union Pacific Railroad commissioned Butler to complete a series of landscapes to promote the scenic marvels of the Colorado Plateau. Seven of these paintings illustrated the marvel of Zion National Park. The wall-sized works of art engulf the viewer and showcase the immense sandstone cliffs and narrow canyon walls that Zion has to offer.
The paintings also represent the early period of the development of visitor recreation and transportation services by the National Park Service. They traveled the country and are now a part of the museum collection at Zion National Park.
Mary Russell Ferell Colton
Landscape artist Mary Russell Ferrell Colton painted Western scenes the early 1910s to 1940s, including Zion National Park in 1930.
Born in 1875, Adele Watson studied in Europe before settling in the United States, maintaining residences in both New York and Pasadena, California. An accomplished landscape painter, Watson traveled through the country painting coastal scenes, sweeping plains and dramatic cliffs, notably in Zion and Bryce Canyon. While in Utah, Watson developed her unique anthropomorphic styles in her work, portraying bodies and faces within the rock shapes.
This style earned her praise from the art community and in 1933, the Los Angeles Times’ art critic, Arthur Millier, wrote, “Miss Watson's work, recently described in these columns, consists principally of landscape, which, seen by the artist's imagination, discloses figures flying in the clouds, struggling for release from desert rocks or lying gracefully along the valleys. Miss Watson's vision are convincing and, at their best, quite beautiful. Her work has no parallel in this region.”
Today, Zion National Park still inspires artists to create masterpieces. Local artists and art galleries often feature park themed artwork. The Zion Human History Museum also occasionally features temporary art exhibits.
Zion National Park Plein Air Art Invitation
Celebrating the role art has had in the history of Zion Canyon, the Zion Forever Project hosts an annual Plein Air Art Invitational in November. The event features some of the country's finest landscape artists to paint in the places that have inspired art for more than a century. The artists will paint en plein air (in the open air) throughout the week. Park visitors that week will have many unique opportunities to witness these great artists at work in the park through daily demonstrations, lectures and activities. For more information, visit www.zionpark.org.
Last updated: September 26, 2022