Photograph by Art Collection, Alamy
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Thomas Moran's "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" was bought by Congress in 1872 for $10,000, a huge sum at that time. This and other works of art helped lead to the formation of the park.
Photograph by Art Collection, Alamy

How art saved Yellowstone—and the landscape still inspires

Paintings of the geysers and mountains of the western landscape have played a pivotal role in the area's history.

On a bright morning in late June, Shirl Ireland stands in her backyard painting majestic Mount Sepulchre, which rises from the northern edge of Yellowstone National Park.

This kind of outdoor painting, called plein air painting, is quite difficult, as it must be done in a couple hours or less. “Plein air painting is a sport,” says Ireland who has long brown hair with streaks of silver, and an earnest, quiet intensity. “You have to get it down quickly before the light changes.”

“Yellowstone is an amazing place to paint,” she continues, using white oil paint to capture a bit of snow that still clings to the peak. “I’m not sure there are many places on Earth that have such a combination of wildlife and landscape.” (Watch a painting inspired by Yellowstone’s exquisite landscape unfold before your eyes.)

Luckily for her, the studio she and her husband, sculptor John Stacy, share with their two kids in Gardiner, Montana, borders the Yellowstone River and looks out into the park. Ireland is part of a longtime artistic tradition that stretches back to, most famously, an American painter named Thomas Moran.

Moran accompanied naturalist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden on the 1871 geological survey of Yellowstone. Along with photographer William Henry Jackson, he produced the first images of the park, stunning landscapes that featured its surreal geothermal features like geysers. These captivated the public—and most notably, Congress.

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Painter Thomas Moran at Yellowstone’s Mammoth Hot Springs.

These works of art convinced the government of the region’s uniqueness, Yellowstone became our first national park the very next year.

Without Moran’s incredible paintings—one of which, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, was purchased by Congress in 1872—the park might not have been protected, Ireland says. Other artists also made important paintings of the region around the same time, such as Albert Bierstadt and Abby Williams Hill, though Moran gets most of the credit.

A resurgence of plein air

While plein air painting became much less popular with the rise of modern art, it has caught on again in the last 15 years or so, Ireland says.

Several national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, and now Yellowstone, have outdoor painting festivals, during which people sketch the landscape and then sell their work to raise money for conservation. This fall, Yellowstone will hold its second annual plein air invitational.

Outdoor painting has its challenges, she adds, such as encounters with wildlife. In her time out in the field making art, Ireland has had a canvas toppled by an elk and had a black bear walk within a foot of her. But she lives so close to the wilderness that she doesn’t need to leave her yard to view them. (Get a bear’s-eye view of Yellowstone.)

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William Henry Jackson's photograph of lower falls of the Yellowstone, from the 1871 expedition.

“Just this morning when I started painting, there was an elk calf nursing, and an osprey flew by—so maybe we’ll get to see something before we’re done,” she says, dabbing on paint. “And just a few weeks ago I watched pronghorn twins born there,” gesturing to the other side of the valley.

She often puts wildlife into her paintings, she says, but it’s difficult because they move, so she sometimes works from photographs.

As she speaks, a raptor soars over the distant mountainside. “Hmm, I think that might be an eagle,” she says.