Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 9, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of the author and the Zion Natural History Association. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue "A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park." Images accompanying the text in the catalogue were not reproduced with this reprinting. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or if you are interested in obtaining a copy of the catalogue, please contact the Zion Natural History Association at either this phone number or web address:


Contemplating the Extraordinary in Nature

Artists and Aesthetic Conservation

By Peter H. Hassrick



In 1917, just two years before Mukuntuweap National Monument would officially become Zion National Park, the newly established National Park Service hosted a monumental art exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The display of forty-five paintings, featuring twenty-seven different artists and assembled by the new agency's director, Stephen Mather, was touted as a testament to the inextricable connection between art and the impulse for the preservation of nature. It also documented a victory in the battle that had raged since the mid-nineteenth century between the forces that favored utilitarian conservation of natural resources (such as controlled mining, lumbering, and hunting) and those who championed the ideal of preserving natural scenery for its own sake. The latter view was referred to as aesthetic conservation and, according to one historian, the founding of the National Park Service "marked the coming of age of aesthetic conservation in the United States."

Frederick Dellenbaugh (1853-1935) is thought to have been the first Anglo artist to visit Zion. As a member of John Wesley Powell's second Colorado River expedition, Dellenbaugh saw Zion for the first time in 1872, and claimed that it was a rival "in beauty and grandeur [to] even the Yosemite, the Yellowstone, and perhaps the Grand Canyon." Zion has, in fact, long claimed the title of "the Yosemite of the Desert." And famed landscape painter, Thomas Moran (1837-1926), who spent the summer of 1872 in Yosemite and came to Zion the next year, was said to have regarded Zion as "the most interesting and beautiful region [he had] ever seen."

It is difficult to say exactly where or when the idea of aesthetic conservation originated in the American mind, but Yosemite was certainly a prime component in its genesis. Moran's rival and contemporary, the grand landscape painter Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) visited the Yosemite Valley for the first time in the summer of 1863 with celebrated travel writer Fitz Hugh Ludlow (1836-1870). They stayed for seven weeks and the resulting paintings and stories were so impressive that the Lincoln administration was encouraged to set aside the valley for public enjoyment, entrusting the care and management responsibilities to the state of California. Less than a decade later, as a result of Moran's travels west with geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden (1829-1887) in the Yellowstone region, America's first official national park was born. The event culminated in the United States Congress's purchase of Moran's epic painting, The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone for the nation's capitol. On that day in 1872, art and the national impetus to preserve were formally and serendipitously wed.

When the National Park Act was passed in 1872, establishing Yellowstone National Park as the world's first such preserve, the document oddly made no mention of aesthetic, cultural, or spiritual values. The signers were, at least on the surface of the legislation, merely wanting to guard against commercial exploitation of the area's natural wonders. Yet hidden in the language of the bill were some hints at a broader imperative. It was made clear that Yellowstone was being set aside as a "pleasuring ground" for the general "benefit and enjoyment of the people." In nineteenth-century parlance, pleasuring meant something more than simply the delectations of recreation and curiosity gazing. A "pleasuring ground" for the public "enjoyment" actually implied aesthetic regard and a cultural corrective. Progress in the form of Manifest Destiny had been the mantra of most Americans of the time. Now, as if to chart a fresh moral course for the nation, a measure of restraint was imposed on the public for the good of the whole. Moreover, philosophical notions held an ascendant sway over the populous when it came to contemplating the extraordinary in nature. From eighteenth-century philosophers and aestheticians such as Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and Edmund Burke (1729-1797) had come the concept, widely embraced by the 1870s, that personal, human gratification could be found in its highest form through associations with raw nature. Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) called for mankind to search the outdoors for the richness of associations with nature and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) demanded that nature be preserved so that the connections could be made. Thanks to such thinkers, Americans realized that aesthetic relationships with nature assured some of life's truest pleasures. These pleasures derived from one-on-one interactions with spectacular scenery, entwining oneself with the sublime and the picturesque. Certainly Yellowstone, along with Yosemite and Zion, satisfied the impulse to connect pleasure with a wide spectrum of aesthetic responses to nature's boldest statements. Aldine magazine, describing the range of reaction to Zion's wonders in 1875, said that "the mind of man cannot conceive anything in nature more truly blending the beautiful [picturesque] and the awful [sublime]." Congress had made ample room for all of this in its landmark legislation.

Just as art was in the forefront of establishing the national park idea, and its sustained reinforcement in the form of the National Park Service, art continues to play a vital role in how these park treasures are understood, enjoyed, and preserved in modern times. As in the nineteenth century, the mix of extraordinary splendor and delicate gems of nature in places like Zion engage people to see and to appreciate nature through firsthand visual experience. The demand for aesthetic interaction with the sublime and the beautiful, although not discussed as such today, continues to be an integral part of the human psyche. And artists continue to help people respond to these demands. Since the nation's bicentennial, several efforts, both private and governmental, have nurtured artists' engagement in the national parks. It is refreshing to see that Zion National Park, through this book and exhibition, is furthering the legacy started 150 years ago by such masters of seeing and revealing nature as Moran, Dellenbaugh, and Bierstadt.



About the Catalogue

Dr. Hassrick's essay is contained in the 144 page catalogue titled A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park, published by Zion Natural History Association in 2008. Essays by other authors are also included in the catalogue. A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park was published in connection with an exhibition with the same title held at the St. George Art Museum from August 25, 2008 through January 24, 2009.


About the Author

Peter H. Hassrick is Director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at Denver Art Museum.


Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was rekeyed and reprinted on November 9, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of the author, granted on August 20, 2008 and the Zion Natural History Association, granted August 28, 2008. The essay was excerpted from the illustrated catalogue "A Century of Sanctuary: The Art of Zion National Park."

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Mr. Lyman Hafen, Executive Director, Zion Natural History Association, and Ms. Lynne Mcwilliams of the St. George Art Museum for their help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.

For biographical information on artists referenced in this essay please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists

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