Magazine article Arts & Activities

Park It!

Magazine article Arts & Activities

Park It!

Article excerpt


Summer vacation is over. You're back at school. Here come the inevitable questions that many teachers ask on the first day of class: "What did you do this summer? Did you travel anywhere?" Closely following those questions comes your first, nearly inevitable, homework assignment: Write a one-page essay describing where you went and what you did.

It used to be customary for the whole family to pile into the car and drive all over the United States. Often the destinations were spectacular places, such as our beautiful national parks. Swimming, hiking, sightseeing and taking photographs were often included in the adventures.

We take for granted that we can drive almost anywhere we want, but a little more than 150 years ago, there were few, if any, roads leading to the places we now know as our national parks.

Yellowstone was the first national park, established in 1872. Today, the National Park System comprises 84 million acres in every state except Delaware. In 2009, almost 300 million people visited national parks. Of those people, many were artists who went to draw, paint and take photographs of some of the most amazing scenery on earth.

Raw nature is one of the greatest inspirations to an artist, and artists can be credited for helping inspire our government to create the National Park System. George Catlin (1796-1872), famous for his portraits of Native Americans, wrote in 1832 that he hoped certain lands might be preserved "by some great protecting policy of government ... in a magnificent park ... a nation's park, containing man and beast, in all the wild[ness] and freshness of their nature's beauty!" (from The National Parks: Shaping the System, produced by Harpers Ferry Center National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.).

Other artists followed Catlin's lead. They traveled West and discovered spectacular areas of unspoiled territory. Writers such as James Fenimore Cooper (1789-1851) and Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862) wrote descriptive and narrative accounts of their travels. Painters such as Thomas Cole (1801-1848), Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) and the artist whose work is pictured to your left, Thomas Moran (1837-1926), all contributed to increasing national awareness of and interest in the wealth of beauty in many landscapes found in the United States.

Moran created this work in 1887, three years before Yosemite was designated a national park. There were no paved roads leading there. He traveled on very rough wagon paths, and then rode horses and hiked to spectacular untamed sections where he produced sketches and paintings of the land he observed and revered.

Yosemite was designated a national park on October 1, 1890. The park is part of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that stretch along the eastern side of California. Yosemite is best known for its giant granite rock formations, the most famous of which is Half Dome, the large mountain in the middle ground of Moran's print. He created this image from a special vantage point, now named after him: Moran Point, just off Yosemite's Four Mile Trail.

The artist was born in England, but immigrated to the United States with his family when he was 7 years old. The Morans lived in Philadelphia, and at age 15 Thomas went to work for a wood engraver. Although engraving itself was not his strength, his exquisite drawings upon the blocks were the basis for others' carvings. He painted in watercolor and oil at home.

When he was 24, he visited England and studied the work of J. M. W. Turner (1789-1862), who had a profound influence on his artistic style. Four years later, he returned to England to study the work of the French artist Jean Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), who was widely exhibited in Europe at that time.

In 1871, at the age of 34, Moran made his first of many trips West_ After that, he returned almost every year to paint and sketch. …

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