National Image/National Identity

Scott Whitham

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the enacting legislation to establish Yellowstone National Park. This Act of Dedication was not only the formal beginning of the United States National Park Service, but a culminating cultural moment in the perception of a national landscape, its value, and its meaning to a recently divided country. The choice to preserve this land followed on the heals of a debate about a place that few Americans had seen, and the new park was the voted into law by a Congress whose members had no direct experience or image of the landscape this legislation preserved.

The visions of place which informed Congress in their debate were the creations of others, most notably the painter Thomas Moran and the photographer William Henry Jackson, who framed and depicted a landscape that had the power to make this new entity law. Jackson's extraordinary stereoscopic images in particular had a profound effect on the members of Congress, each of whom received a bound folio of images prior to their vote. Both Jackson and Moran not only gained instantly acclaimed (and profitable) reputations when their art was viewed by audiences back in the East, but Moran's seven by twelve foot painting "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" became the first American painting bought by the United States government, and hung for many years in the halls of Congress.

The role of the product of these artists as mediators in an understanding of the framed landscape, and how culturally embedded notions of framing, national identity and its inherent landscape symbolism supported a political movement for landscape curation and preservation, will be explored in this analysis.

Landscape and Identity

The United States of 1872 was a nation still in recovery from shock. The Civil War, which had raged from 1861 until 1865, had caused over one million casualties and millions of acres more of destroyed farms, landscapes and cities - there were few families untouched by the memory of its brutal horror. The widely reproduced photographs of Mathew Brady and others brought homes extraordinarily stark images of dead boys and devastated landscapes. For the first time in the history of war, citizens of a nation could see first hand the cost and waste of battle, stripped of the romance of cause and glory. The ruin seen in such intimate and terrible view was not only painfully uncomfortable; it was barely credible as a recognizable image of the nation.

Since the 1830s, mass-produced, popular lithographs such as those created by Currier and Ives had been readily available to even the most modest households. Portraying bucolic, idealized scenes and landscapes in the pastoral tradition, these images provided an iconic identity to an expanding nation of American nationalists, and had a clear aesthetic relationship to the romantic and picturesque landscape painting current in American art. These images both fed from and harkened back to a sense of national iconography that was as old as the country's founding, and indeed to its initial European settlement, where nature, viewed in proximity to the arrival of civilization, offered direct access to the sublime.

Codified by painters such as Thomas Cole and others in the Hudson River School, this aesthetic view intimated that the natural world contained within it, like a lovely but partially obscured gift, spiritual uplift for the proper gaze. In his 1836 "Essay on American Scenery" published in American Monthly Magazine, Cole effuses

"He who looks on nature with a "loving eye," cannot move from his dwelling without the salutation of beauty; even in the city the deep blue sky and the drifting clouds appeal to him. And if to escape its turmoil--if only to obtain a free horizon, land and water in the play of light and shadow yields delight-- let him be transported to those favored regions, where the features of the earth are more varied, or yet add the sunset, that wreath of glory daily bound around the world, and he, indeed, drinks from pleasure's purest cup. The delight such a man experiences is not merely sensual, or selfish, that passes with the occasion leaving no trace behind; but in gazing on the pure creations of the Almighty, he feels a calm religious tone steal through his mind, and when he has turned to mingle with his fellow men, the chords which have been struck in that sweet communion cease not to vibrate."(Cole, 2)

This view, that our concourse with nature could result in manifestations of the ineffable, was completely in concord with America's founding myth of it being, upon our "discovery," a tabula rasa in its natural state uncorrupted by the European past, to be viewed, captured and consumed for our pleasure and, perhaps, our transcendence. This notional (and later national) identity, placed in its relation to and relief against the natural world, contains not only the power of the relationship, but also its fragility, and was equally central to both this myth and its painterly representation. Cole, in the same essay, continues

"I cannot but express my sorrow that the beauty of such landscapes are quickly passing away--the ravages of the axe are daily increasing--the most noble scenes are made desolate, and oftentimes with a wantonness and barbarism scarcely credible in a civilized nation. The wayside is becoming shadeless, and another generation will behold spots, now rife with beauty, desecrated by what is called improvement; which, as yet, generally destroys Nature's beauty without substituting that of Art."(Cole, 2)

The poignant sigh of nature's ephemerally has always been one half of America's bi-polar duet with its own identity; In our national rush to "improve" nature by civilized use, we have often done so wistfully, and regret has been a powerful motivator for preservation. As Richard Grusin notes, "In America, the preservation of natural spaces has involved not only the creation of an alternative to the nation's cultural space but also the creation of America itself." (Grusin, 1)

Colter's Hell

The Yellowstone area had first been explored in 1808 by John Colter, a former member of the Lewis and Clarke Expedition, and later by Jim Bridger in the 1820s. Their stories of its extraordinary landscape of hissing geysers and fabulous canyons had been thought to be exaggeration and unreliable, and the area became known as the mythological realm "Colter's Hell." In 1870, a formal expedition was organized by Philadelphia financier Jay Cooke, who was associated with the Northern Pacific Railroad, and was keenly interested in promoting public lands in the Montana Territory. Cooke chose his protégé, Nathaniel P. Langford, to accompany and record the expedition. It was led by Henry D. Washburn, Surveyor General of the Montana Territory. Washburn had served with the 18th Indiana infantry during the war, and was an officer at both the siege of Vicksburg and with General Sherman in his Shenandoah Campaign. After four long years of fighting, he finished the war with the rank of Major General. In Langford, Cooke had chosen an apt promoter. His 1871 report of the expedition (fig. 18) was serialized in Scribner's Magazine under the title "The Wonders of Yellowstone," and gained immediate attention in the East. Since the expedition did not include an artist, Scribner's hired Philadelphia painter Thomas Moran to prepare sketches based on Langford's description to accompany the article.

Figure 18:Diary of the Washburn expedition to the Yellowstone and Firehole rivers in the year 1870, by Nathaniel Pitt Langford. St. Paul, Minn.: J.E. Haynes, c1905
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Nathaniel Langford's first-hand description of the 1871 Washburn Expedition convinced many federal officials of the extraordinary nature of the Yellowstone landscape. Almost immediately upon his return from the west, Langford set out on an animated lecture tour to describe the wonders that he had seen. Among those who attended the initial lecture in Washington D.C.'s Lincoln Hall was Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the Geological Survey of the Territories, who would form and lead the first Federal expedition to the area of Yellowstone the following year. A direct result of the Hayden Expedition and its report was the creation of Yellowstone as America's first National Park. After the parks creation, Langford was named as its first superintendent.

Kroch Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
Cornell University Library

Moran's published sketches of an unseen landscape were successful enough to gain the admiration of Jay Cooke, who envisioned a new expedition with Moran as its painter of record, and hoped to replicate the success that the Union Pacific Railroad had had with hiring Alfred Bierstadt to paint and popularize the landscape of the Sierra Nevada in California. Langford's efforts to publicize the Yellowstone area were successful as well, and in 1872 a government expedition was organized under the lead of Geologist Ferdinand Hayden. Cooke, whose Northern Railroad connections helped defray the costs of Hayden's expedition, invited Moran along as a supplemental member, and Hayden, as a courtesy, agreed. Also invited, as the official recorder of the expedition, was photographer William Henry Jackson.

Framing the Sublime; Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson

Jackson and Moran became instant companions. As the two professional artists responsible for recording the landscape discoveries for the expedition, they travelled as a pair, posing as figures in each others frame, and suggesting angles and perspectives of capture. They were both, as well, committed to reporting accurately, and capturing the "truth" about what they were seeing. Both men of course worked in different mediums, and Jackson's photography (fig. 19) was thought by some in many ways the superior, because of his ability to capture cold scientific "truth" absolutely. In the January 1873 edition of the American Journal of Science, long time editor James Dwight Dana writes

"Next to a personal visit to this land of geysers, hot springs, fountains of boiling mud, waterfalls, lakes, and majestic mountains, is a morning spent over these photographs. They would do credit to the best photographic laboratory, and, considering the difficulties inherent in a long and arduous journey, they are really admirable. The Yellowstone series well illustrates the advantage of photography over hand drawing in bringing out the details of structure, especially where the artist is guided by the geologist in selecting the best points of view."(Grusin, 76)

Figure 19:William Henry Jackson. Crater of the Lone Star Geyser, Yellowstone National Park, ca 1878. Albumen print, 9 1/4 x 13 in.
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William Henry Jackson accompanied the 1871 Hayden Geological Survey to Yellowstone as the expedition's official photographer. Jackson began his artistic career as a painter, and became known for his sketches of army life while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. Moving west after the war, he was working for The Union Pacific Railroad as a promotional photographer for their new western routes when he came to the attention of Ferdinand Hayden. His ability to produce extraordinary work under the difficult conditions of the exploration won him faithful audience back in the eastern states.

Kroch Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections
Cornell University Library

But Moran is particularly passionate in his attempt to capture another sort of "truth," not just an accurate capture of the physical world as observed, but a representation of the experience of looking (fig. 20). In a letter to Hayden after the expedition, he describes his work to finish the final paintings in his studio

"The picture is now more than half finished & I feel confident that it will produce a most decided sensation in Art circles. By all artists it has heretofore been decried next to impossible to make good pictures of strange and wonderful scenes in Nature, & that the most that can be done with such material was to give topographical or geologic characteristics. But I have always held that the grandest or most beautiful, or wonderful in Nature would, in capable hands, make the grandest, most beautiful, or wonderful pictures; & that the business of a great painter, should be the representation of great scenes in Nature. All the above characteristics attach to the Yellowstone region; & if I fail to prove this, I fail to prove myself worthy the name of painter."(Grusin, 85)

Figure 20:Thomas Moran, Yellowstone Lake, Chromolithograph, 1874. Printed 1875 by Prang's American Chromos, Boston.
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Painter Thomas Moran joined the Ferdinand Hayden expedition as a guest in a last minute request by railroad financier Jay Cooke, whose Northern Pacific Railroad had allied itself to the effort to keep the Yellowstone basin in public hands. In a letter to Hayden, Cooke describes Moran as an artist of "rare genius," and hopes that he will not prove a burden. Moran's paintings of the Yellowstone landscape, along with the photographs of William Jackson, became a decisive factor in the 1872 decision by Congress to create the Yellowstone National Park.

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art
Cornell University Library

His striving to be both accurate and create "beautiful, or wonderful pictures" as his duty as an artist, is striking, and echoes a romantic notion that such a "truth" can indeed be captured.

Framing Symbols

"Landscape is not the same as land. Land is material, a particular object, while landscape is conceptual. When people act as tourists, they leave the land where they make their home to encounter landscapes. Land becomes landscape when it is assigned the role of symbol, and as symbol it functions rhetorically. When landscapes are publicized - when they share in public discourse or in the non-discursive form of what I am calling a public experience - they do the rhetorical work of symbolizing a common home and, thus, a common identity"(Clark, 9)

John Urry contends that such touristic viewing is a semiotic act, and that "the gaze is constructed through signs, and tourism involves the collection of signs." (Urry, 4) What separates the experiences of Langford, Moran and Jackson from those of any viewer, or tourist? They did, in many senses, go seeking for signs of what they knew they would find, and captured and packaged them for consumption. In other words, they sought symbols, found them, and reported them, "accurately", back. In his Visual Elements of the Landscape, John Jakle states that "Although sightseers rarely experience a sense of complete scenic cohesion, they unknowingly search for composed pictures predicated on their repeated exposure to the rules of composition implicit in the photographs and other art works daily encountered." (Jakle, 126) Is this, again, what these early Yellowstone viewers are doing? And at the same time preparing the ground for many later viewers to do the same?

The aiming of the camera had not only a long cultural pedigree but also distinct directive of power; and in perhaps Moran and Jackson's sense, a very specific demand of power - to re-find "arcadia" and claim it as ours. This nationalistic act, the claiming of an entire landscape as symbol and framing it, is what Yi-Fu Tuan might call a "confident act of incorporation."

" Mountains and rivers - marvels of nature that far dwarf man - are caught by strokes of the brush on canvas or paper. Captive nature is then put in a frame, nailed to the wall of a house, there to be looked at and appreciated or to serve as a pleasing background (a touch of wildness) among the ordered events of social life." (Tuan, 4)

In his discussion of photography and nationalism, Jens Jager claims that "The function of photography to represent a nation by images of (symbolic) landscape was by no means self-evident. It required a connection between the national movement, a receptive public and an intellectual framework in which the landscape photographs were "read" and generated meaning.' His argument could very well apply to Jackson and (in this instance) Moran, who, consciously or not, were performing this function in capturing Yellowstone. Jager continues, "This intellectual framework consisted of three key elements: first, objectivity had to be inscribed onto the photographs to allow viewers to interpret scenes as true representations of nature." (Jager, 3) It was certainly Jackson and Moran stated goal to be true to the nature of the views they saw in Yellowstone, and to capture them as accurately as possible. Their participation in a federally sponsored expedition, with an express object being the recording of scientific data, would define their goals as "objective."

Second, for Jager, is that the photographed scene "- that is, the landscape itself - had to be embraced as a national symbol; this required a strong connection between certain landscapes on the one hand, and national character and virtue on the other. " The natural landscapes of America defined the country's character from the beginning of its colonization, and that relationship continued to strengthen during the formation and development of the United States. The western landscapes, particularly at this time, carried a strong nationalistic identification, especially as seen through the lens of a post-war nation.

"Third, " states Jager, "prevailing aesthetic conventions had to frame the viewing of landscapes and steer the interpretation of landscape photographs in the direction of these associations. "(Jager, 118) The contemporary 19th-century tradition of American landscape painting and its inherent symbolism spoke directly to this act of framing and interpretation, as well as the reading landscapes as representative of national themes and goals.

On all three of these accounts, Moran and Jackson are seen as fostering a national image through representative landscape art - viewing, framing and mediating both their subject and their public products toward a political end. Their work represented a "truth" about the nation that was self-fulfilling, and reinforced a national self-identification with the American landscape.

"For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People"; The Founding of a National Park System

After Yellowstone became the first National Park, Nathaniel P. Langford (or "National Park" Langford, as he came to be known) became the first Superintendent. The stories that he first told about the "Wonders" he had seen became validated as Official Wonders that were federally sanctioned. Thomas Moran and William Henry Jackson found in Yellowstone, like most tourists, what they sought. Their careers were solidified as viewers and mediators of wonderful and amazing things that could be experienced through their eyes. And a national landscape was enshrined as one of "The" landscapes of the American imagination and identity, a unifying landscape of the American west unscarred by war and innocent, in our mind, of civilization; And one that most every American can picture well without ever having to visit.


Clark, Gregory Rhetorical Landscapes in America; Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke, Columbia, University of South Carolina Press, 2004

Cole, Thomas Essay on American Scenery, American Monthly Magazine(January 1836),

Early, Katherine E. "For The Benefit And Enjoyment Of The People": Cultural Attitudes And The Establishment Of Yellowstone National Park, Washington, DC, Georgetown University Press, 1984

Grusin, Richard Culture, Technology, And The Creation Of America's National Parks, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004

Haines, Aubrey L. Yellowstone National Park; Its Exploration and Establishment , Washington, DC, U.S. Department of Interior,

National Park National Park Service, 1974

Jakle, John A. The Visual Elements of Landscape, Amherst, The University of Massachusetts Press, 1987

Jager, Jens Picturing Nations: Landscape Photography and National Identity in Britain and Germany in the Mid-Nineteenth Century. Reproduced in Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, London, IB Tauris, 2009

Kinsey, Joni L. Thomas Moran's West: chromolithography, high art, and popular taste, Lawrence, University of Kansas Press, 2006

Knudsen, Daniel C. & Metro-Rolland, Michelle M., eds.Landscape, Tourism, and Meaning, Burlington, Ashgate, 2008

Langford, Nathaniel Pitt The Discovery of Yellowstone Park Lincoln, U. of Nebraska Press, 1972

Lasansky, D. Medina & McLaren, B eds. Architecture & Tourism: Perception, Performance and Place New York, Berg Press, 2004

Magoc, Chris J. Yellowstone: The Creation and Selling of an American Landscape, 1870-1903, Albuquerque, University of New Mexico Press, 1999

Ryan, James & Schwartz, Joan Introduction: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, in J. Ryan & J. Schwartz, eds., Picturing Place: Photography and the Geographical Imagination, London, IB Tauris, 2009

Tuan, Yi-Fu Dominance and Affection; The Making of Pets, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1984

Urry, John The Tourist Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies London, Sage Publications, 1990

Kroch Division of Rare and Manuscript Collection (KRMC) at Cornell University (fig 18, fig 19)

Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art Collection, Cornell University (fig. 20)

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