Get Artsy in Our National Parks
For over 100 years, artists of all sorts have been inspired by America’s national parks. Their work, capturing the beauty of our landscapes, resources, and shared histories, often inspired others in protecting and preserving these places for present and future generations. The National Park Foundation supports projects and programs that inspire love for and conservation of our national parks and all the treasures they hold. Learn more about the park art history and discover how artists today are finding inspiration in parks.
Hudson River School Painters
During the 1820s, the art of landscape painting took off in popularity. Views of natural wonders, painted meticulously by talented artists, were highly sought after by collectors worldwide.
Thomas Cole, one of the artists to popularize the genre, and those who followed his example, established what became known as the Hudson River School. Thomas Cole’s home in Cedar Grove in New York’s Catskills, is now preserved as the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Hudson River School's artists' landscape paintings celebrated nature above things man-made or altered by human interference, reflecting the emerging conservation movement that sought to protect those landscapes captured on canvas in the real world. Collections of paintings from the Hudson River School can be seen at Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site, San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, and Thomas Edison National Historical Park.
Julian Alden Weir
The son of a prominent portrait painter, Julian Alden Weir studied painting in Europe before returning to the United States in 1877, where he established himself as a portrait and still life painter, as well as an art teacher with the Art Students League. In 1882, Weir traded one of his paintings for a farm in Branchville, Connecticut, filled with picturesque rocky fields and woodlands.
These landscapes, now preserved by Weir Farm National Historic Site, inspired Weir over the next four decades. Expanding his farmhouse, Weir hosted friends and guests in his idyllic artists’ retreat, where they enjoyed painting, fishing, and discussion. Using the backdrop of the farm’s natural beauty as inspiration, Weir and visiting artists developed the American Impressionistic style, working in opposition to the rigid, defined rules of art composition and painting. The scenery continues to inspire artists to this day, who come to seek inspiration among the same landscapes Weir and his contemporaries painted over 100 years ago.
Working in the latter half of the 19th century, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens combined naturalism and monumentality in his works. Born in Dublin in 1848, Saint-Gaudens immigrated to the United States as an infant. Working as a cameo cutter and portrait bust sculptor, Saint-Gaudens studied sculpture in Europe and soon began to get commissions for public monuments. Settling permanently in Cornish, New Hampshire in 1885, Saint-Gaudens became one of the most influential and well-known sculptors of his time, meeting and creating sculptures of many legendary figures, including General William T. Sherman, Robert Louis Stevenson, and President Abraham Lincoln.
Saint-Gaudens’ New Hampshire home, where he lived and worked, is now preserved as Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park. It was here that Saint-Gaudens hosted other artists, musicians, and actors, all seeking inspiration from the picturesque countryside provided by the estate. Today, over 100 of Saint-Gaudens’ works are exhibited in the park’s galleries on the grounds of the house.
In the first half of the 20th century, Ansel Adams’ white and black photographs of national parks introduced the magnificence of our nation’s landscapes to a larger audience. Capturing the soaring sequoias and cascading waterfalls of the High Sierras in sharp resolution offered by photography, Adams’ use of minimalism and deep focus continue to strike awe in those that view his images.
Adams’ work, like the photographs captured at Yosemite National Park as well as those captured at Manzanar National Historic Site, tells the story of our national parks with a striking, visceral tone. These stunning photographs became an essential element of advocating for the preservation of America’s national lands. His portfolios of photographs gained global fame and shone a spotlight on America’s unique public lands.
As part of the New Deal in the early 1930s, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) hired unemployed artists of all kinds to produce paintings, murals, sculptures, photography, and posters. Over two million posters created by WPA-supported artists promoted education, the arts, public health, travel, and more. Just a small handful bcame some of the most iconic posters ever created – those featuring colorful, striking illustrated images of our national parks.
Of the thousands of original posters created for the National Park Service between 1938 and 1941, only a small amount survive in their original condition. Artists like Doug Leen, or “Ranger Doug,” who once served as a seasonal ranger at a park, seek to recreate and imitate the style and silk-screening process with which the original posters were made to create new posters that continue to inspire admirers and park lovers.
Catherine Filene Shouse
Catherine Filene Shouse was a researcher and philanthropist with a lifelong admiration for the arts. At the turn of the 20th century, Shouse worked as a volunteer fundraiser for the American Symphony League – now the National Symphony Orchestra – and built up Wolf Trap Farm, acres of farmland outside of Washington, D.C. where social gatherings including dinners, parties, dances, carnivals, and more combined Shouse’s love of both nature and the performing arts.
In 1966, Shouse donated 100 acres of Wolf Trap Farm to the United States Department of the Interior, as well as the funds to build a large outdoor amphitheater, now known as the Filene Center. As the only national park dedicated to presenting the performing arts, Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts continues to provide performances of musicals, dance, opera, jazz, popular and country music, and more to thousands of guests each year.
The spectacular landscapes of our national parks are often the subject of many artists’ work. The stories of our lands, our histories, and our cultures, are varied and sprawling. However, for some, it is the people who protect those stories who are the most fascinating. We were struck recently by a series of paintings displayed outside a classroom in President’s Park in Washington, D.C. by National Park Service Guide Elijah Prince.
Depicting a young African American woman in her life-long experiences with national parks – from her first ranger-led program to becoming a park ranger herself. Emphasizing the lasting impact a trip to a national park can have, as well as the diversity of park experiences one can enjoy, Prince’s paintings inspire the young visitors to President’s Park to get out there and explore the 400+ parks in the National Park System. Read our interview with Prince and see his full “Park Ranger” series.
"Twenty & Odd"
In 2020, the National Park Service premiered a new short film “Twenty & Odd,” a visual tool that uses the sites preserved by the National Park Service to speak to the trauma, resilience, and beauty of the African American experience in our country. Developed by a group of National Park Service staff and interns, “Twenty & Odd” provides an opportunity to motivate and empower people from all walks of life to cultivate personal connections with our parks and embrace them as welcoming sources of health and healing.
The creators of “Twenty & Odd” developed an accompanying companion guide, describing and interpreting the underlying concepts of the film’s imagery set to Dr. Maya Angelou’s poem “Still I Rise.” Read our interview with some of the film’s creative team about the inspiration and filming process.
Travel Posters - Reimagined
Sometimes art itself inspires other artists. The long tradition of travel posters promoting national parks often sparks something in artists looking to put their own spin on park illustration. Using the rich history of the art and the artists that have come before them, artists today are reimagining what travel posters for our parks could look like, expanding the parks depicted to include the places protected by the National Park Service that are most special to them.
In 2021, NPF and our partner Union Pacific Railroad commissioned a vintage-style poster to celebrate the grand opening of Pullman National Monument’s new visitor center. Using inspiration from the iconic Union Pacific national park travel posters, Chicago artist Joe Nelson created a reimagined travel poster advertising Pullman National Monument – Chicago's first national park site. Read our interview with Joe as he explores his inspiration for the piece, as well as his personal ties to the Pullman site and its history.