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.

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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.

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.

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