Students will connect 19th century perceptions of the “Wild West” with Hill's representation of Yosemite. Students will learn the basic components of a landscape and will create a landscape using atmospheric perspective.
Learning Landscapes: Great Canyon of the Sierra
Time Alloted60 Minutes Minimum
State Content Standards
5.8.4 - Discuss the experiences of settlers on the overland trails to the West (e.g., location of the routes; purpose of the journeys; the influence of the terrain, rivers, vegetation, and climate; life in the territories at the end of these trails).
5.8.6 - Relate how and when California, Texas, Oregon, and other western lands became part of the United States, including the significance of the Texas War for Independence and the Mexican-American War.
8.6 Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people from 1800 to the mid-1800s and the challenges they faced, with emphasis on the Northeast.
1.1 Identify and describe the principles of design in visual compositions, emphasizing unity and harmony.
2.6 Use perspective in an original work of art to create a real or imaginary scene.
3.3 Identify and compare works of art from various regions of the United States.
- atmospheric perspective,- showing distance by changing the color and detail.
- background – the area of a painting that is furthest away. It is usually at the top of a canvas.
- middleground – the middle area of a painting
- foreground- the area of a painting that is closest. It is usually at the bottom of a canvas.
- landscape – a representation of scenery
- horizon line – the line in the furthest distance where land or sea meets the sky.
Thomas Hill's on Digital Crocker (crockerartmuseum.org), white paper, pencils, crayons, colored construction paper, photograph or magazine pictures of different landscapes.
Show students a picture of Thomas Hill's Great Canyon of the Sierra. The Crockers purchased this painting and hung it on the south wall of the California gallery in 1873, where it still hangs today. Ask students:
- What do you see? Yosemite, a landscape (El Capitan, South Dome, Bridal Veil Falls , Cathedral Rocks). Thomas Hill was famous during his lifetime for his paintings of Yosemite . He painted this in 1871, during the Western Expansion, when pioneers were moving West for gold, to escape the aftermath of the Civil War, and for new opportunities. This was painted just two years after the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, uniting the East with the West coast.
- Why do you think people were interested in paintings of Yosemite ? Beautiful, newly discovered, shows wild west, ideal picture of the West for visitors who lived on the East Coast. At this time, the US was trying to create its own identity, separate from European influence. Places like Yosemite represented the beautiful and untouched land in the West. Land that was not yet cultivated by settlers was a sign of the nation during its early years. Lincoln signed a treaty (1864) protecting Yosemite , eventually turning it into federally protected land, what became out national parks and then world heritage site.
- What signs of habitation do you see? Only a small group of Miwok Indians in corner. The San Francisco Newsletter from February 20, 18 75 describes this painting. “The artist gives us a graphic and powerful view of Yosemite Valley from a location about one mile below Inspiration Point, the scene being towards the Northeast . . . A wigwam and Indians in the distance are the only evidence of habitation and life.”
- One art critic called Hill "The most ardent devotee at the shrine of Yosemite and the most faithful priest of the valley.” When looking at this painting, how does it make you feel? Awe-struck, spiritual. Yosemite was a popular subject because it showed the beauty of the grand, untouched West and also showed the power of nature over people in a very spiritual way. It looks real even though Hill manipulated some of the landscape so he could fit many landmarks within the composition.
- What did Hill do to make you feel this way? Size, people are few and very small . This painting is 6'x10'.
- Besides of its large size, Hill used an artistic technique called atmospheric perspective to create so much depth. Show students that Hill divided his canvas into 3 parts, a foreground, middle ground and background. Explain that objects are largest, most detailed, and vivid in the foreground. Show how the composition becomes more muted in the middle ground, and fades to a blue-gray in the background. Show them that the place where the land meets the sky is called the horizon line.
- Dissect Hill's painting to show how he used atmospheric perspective. Ask what effect the river has on the composition. Draws you from the foreground through the middle ground and to the background, creating more depth. Point out the thicker brushwork in the foreground. Tell students they will create their own landscape using what they have learned about atmospheric perspective.
First model steps 1-3 for your class. Then circulate as students transfer their pictures onto construction paper.
- Have each student bring a photograph of a landscape from a personal experience or choose a picture of a landscape from a magazine. See if students can find landscapes with little evidence of people or development.
- Ask students to point to the “horizon line” on their picture. Check for understanding.
- Using pencil, transfer/trace basic forms from the foreground, middle ground and background onto your paper. Have students tell you that the foreground will be more detailed and colorful.
- Circulate as students sketch their landscapes. Check for understanding of new terms.
- Using crayon, students build up their landscape with color. Tell them to use bolder colors and show the crayon lines in the foreground, more muted colors in the middle ground, and that they can use the side of their crayon to color the background so that lines are minimal.
- Using a white crayon, students can lighten their landscape, but all of the paper should be covered in crayon.
- When finished, students can mount their landscape on construction paper and display both their landscape and the original photograph on the wall for discussion.
- Have students review the components of a landscape in small groups as they look at each other's work.
OR instead of crayon
- 5. Tear colored construction paper into small pieces and fill in landscape.
- 6. Fill in foreground with bolder construction paper. Fill in middle ground with muted and pastel construction paper. Fill in background with greys and blues. Make sure entire paper is covered.
- Art Connection- Cut a color photograph of Thomas Hill's Great Canyon of the Sierra into 30 squares. Give each student one square. Students will use acrylic paint and copy their square on a small canvas. Show students that squares from the foreground will be more descriptive in line and color, squares in the middle ground are less descriptive and vivid and that those in the background are even less descriptive and go to grey. Put student's squares together to create one large painting.
- Language Arts Connection - Pretend you are a tourist visiting Yosemite in 1871. Write a letter to your best friend in New York describing your experience.
Related Reading Material
A Day With Tupi , Fran Hubbard
Two Bear Cubs – A Miwok Legend from Yosemite Valley , retold by Robert San Souci
Stella and Roy Go Camping , Ashley Wolff
Sacrifice, Diane Matcheck
Eyewitness Art: Perspective, Alison Cole
The Manifest Destiny and Art
Focus Artwork and Artists: Sugar Loaf Peak, El Dorado County, Thomas Hill, 1865
Soda Springs, Sierra Nevada Mountains, Norton Bush, 1868
Miners in the Sierra, Norton Bush, 1869
Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite, Thomas Hill, 1871
Grade Level: 8th
Time allotted: 1-2 class periods
8.8: Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people in the West from 1800 to
the mid-1800s and the challenges they faced.
8.8.2: Describe the purpose, challenges, and economic incentives associated with westward
expansion, including the concept of Manifest Destiny (e.g., the Lewis and Clark expedition, accounts of the removal of Indians, the Cherokees' "Trail of Tears," settlement of the Great Plains) and the territorial acquisitions that spanned numerous decades.
Lesson Objective: Students will learn about the social importance of the idea of the Manifest Destiny in America during the mid-19th century. Through the consideration of four artworks by Thomas Hill and Norton Bush, students will identify and discuss how the two artists used the ideas of Manifest Destiny to appeal to the viewer, and how they effectively hid certain aspects of frontier life and American society from their artwork in order to make the image of the American West appealing and beyond the problems of everyday life.
Lesson Procedure:1. Present the images of Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite and Soda Springs,
Sierra Nevada Mountains to the students. These images are accessible on Digital Crocker at crockerartmuseum.org, or on the Striking Gold CD ROM.
2. Tell students that the movement of American art at this time was towards the depiction of landscapes.
a. This trend in depicting landscapes was championed by a group of artists known as the Hudson River School.
b. This group of artists was led by figures such as Thomas Cole and Frederic Church.
Question: Take a look at Hill’s Great Canyon of the Sierra and Bush’s Soda Springs; do they attempt to show the beauty of the American landscape? If so, how do they accomplish this?
a. Use of light to convey a certain tranquility (should I expand upon this?)
b. The artist’s use of color implies healthy vegetation. In particular, the greens of the trees.
c. Minimal presence of human beings. Even when present in the work, they live in harmony with the land. (Bush shows a family that lives off the land, using the trees to construct a log cabin, rather than merely chopping them down to clear land)
d. Sheer size of the artistic canvas exudes the majesty of nature. Hill’s Canyon measures 6’ x 10’, with the majority of the work devoted to the depiction of landscape. The overwhelming size of the canvas can make the viewer feel insignificant to the display of nature.
3. Review the idea of the Manifest Destiny with the students. What was the Manifest Destiny?
4. Reality or Propaganda? Introduce Bush’s Miners in the Sierra and Hill’s Sugar Loaf Peak, El Dorado County.
Question: Look at these works by Bush and Hill. What do we see here that is similar to the previous two works?
a. Beauty of nature in the California wilderness.
b. Lack of human population.
c. Dominance of nature in the canvas.
Follow-Up: How would the idea of unspoiled beauty, as seen in these two works, appeal to the settlers of the west? In other words, how did this contrast with the life of the eastern states and cities?
i. Freedom of space and life; in contrast to a more orderly and controlled life in the east, the settlers had the opportunity to lay claim to vast amounts of land, and live according to their own rules.
ii. The land that needs to be tamed; in order to fulfill the Manifest Destiny, civilization must spread across the continent. The wilderness contained a lack of order and by moving into the western territories, settlers, while enjoying the beauty of nature, could also establish the ideas of law and reason that existed in the eastern states.
New Question: Thinking about what you know from lessons on westward expansion and life on the frontier, what is not pictured in these paintings?
a. People; the Americans who choose to occupy this land are not present within the work. While we see some Native American peoples in Great Canyon of the Sierra and Sugar Loaf Peak, the presence of settlers is not particularly felt by the viewer. It begs the question, if there are no American settlers depicted in the work, then who is doing the painting? It is true that Soda Springs shows a log cabin presumably built by a family on the frontier, but this is the only indication in the four paintings of a “civilized” presence in the wilderness.
b. The hardships of frontier life (remind students to think of how life on the frontier really would be, without all the modern conveniences of the city); nowhere in these paintings does one see any indication that frontier life is particularly hard for those involved. There is no threat of illness or attack in these works, simply a scarce number of people living in harmony with nature.
(The next two points might be difficult for the students to realize, so it could prove helpful to give them a few hints or clues, such as: Was there anybody present in the West before American expansion? How do settlers cultivate the land and construct permanent homes? What is lost?)
c. Displacement of Native Americans; during the process of the Manifest Destiny, especially in California, many Native Americans were displaced by settlers who moved onto their land and claimed it as their own. In Soda Springs and Sugar Loaf Peak, we are presented with Native Americans who live on the land, but such a scenario would not last long once the settlers moved in. (In fact, they are already present, who painted the picture?)
d. There is also a lack of environmental exploitation in the work. With the development of railroads and construction of permanent settlements, vast amounts of land were cleared and trees cut down for human use. In these works, we get the impression that the West is completely wild, with no tamed territory. (You could remind them that San Francisco was already a bustling city when these paintings were created.)
5. Political/Commercial involvement – Most purchases of these frontier works were those people who advocated westward expansion. As a result, they enjoyed the look of wide open spaces, ripe for the picking.
Question: Think about the United States during this time period. (1865-1871) The country was going through a large social and political change during the era. What event had just ended that would cause great change? Do we see any indication of it in these works?
(Discussion: When the entire nation was changing and the issues of national reconstruction and social change were taking place; in your opinion, why do you think Bush and Hill would decide to paint scenes of harmony in nature? The answers to the question are varied. It is asked solely for the purpose of getting students to analyze more completely the complex issues happening in America at this time.)
6. Ending Questions and Discussion - Norton Bush and Thomas Hill tried to create works of art that showed something that was essentially “American” (in their mind, the vast wilderness of the territories). In the present day, what objects or environments do you consider as being essentially “American”? Now think about a poster on your wall or a favorite commercial of your on TV. In either of these, do you recognize some essentially American qualities? Also, are there any major social issues of the modern times that your favorite image does not display?
About the Artist
Born in 1829, in Birmingham , England , Thomas Hill was best known for his inspirational landscape scenes, especially those of the Yosemite Valley . When he was 15, Hill and his family left England and moved to Massachusetts , where his father had settled a year earlier. Anxious for work, Hill was apprenticed to a coach painter, and by 1847, moved to Boston where he was employed in an interior decoration firm. After marriage and the birth of his first son, Hill moved his family to Philadelphia in 1853. He enrolled in night classes at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, one of the finest art schools of the time. In 1854, Hill began visiting the White Mountains . As he produced paintings based on this scenery, Hill became aware of the growing popularity of landscape paintings, particularly those from California . By 1861, due to the outbreak of the Civil War, his own health concerns, and a possible new art market, Hill decided to move his family to California.
The 1862 – 1863 San Francisco Directory lists Thomas Hill, “portrait painter.” Within the next few years, he gained attention for paintings of San Mateo County , Napa Valley , and the Mother Lode area. In 1865, Hill exhibited the painting Sugar Loaf Peak , El Dorado County at the California Art Union, a painting eventually purchased by Judge Edwin B. Crocker, an emerging art patron living in Sacramento .
Although Hill painted and sketched scenery throughout North America and Europe during his lifetime, he is most associated with Yosemite views. Late in 1865, Hill made his first trip to Yosemite with artist Virgil Williams and photographer Carleton E. Watkins. The following year, he exhibited View of Yo-Semite Valley … at the National Academy of Design in New York . Hill was now meeting with some financial and critical success, but he was eager for more artistic training to further his career. He left for Paris in 1866.
While in France, Hill learned the techniques of the Barbizon painters. Barbizon was the name of a forest located outside of Paris and the painters attracted there were known for painting more intimate views of nature, on site, rather than in a studio. With this influence, Hill began to move away from the more grandiose effects and highly charged color of the Hudson River School .
In 1868, Hill returned to the United States and set up a home in Cambridge and a studio in Boston , Massachusetts . He created his first panoramic Yosemite view while in this location. When this painting was exhibited at a prominent Boston gallery, critics praised his work. Priced at an astounding $10,000, it was purchased by Charles Crocker. The commercial printing company, Prang, printed a smaller version of this view in chromolithography (a popular color printing process). In this form, Hill's painting was available to hundreds of households. Even with his success in Boston, Hill sent paintings to San Francisco for exhibition and sale. In November 1871, Hill exhibited a monumental painting, Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite, in his Boston studio, which generated even more acclaim. Only a few months later, Hill left Boston for California , a trip tied to the exhibition of Great Canyon of the Sierra at the Snow and Roos Gallery in San Francisco. This was the painting that Judge E.B. Crocker purchased for his collection in Sacramento.
During the next several years, Hill traveled frequently and exhibited throughout the country. He was also attracting support from several California collectors. Hill displayed his work in the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and earned the highest award for landscape painting. He was earning greater recognition, but sales were often a challenge. Hill realized that his views of Yosemite appealed to a broad audience – not just West Coast patrons – and he capitalized on this by producing numerous oil sketches and paintings of this subject. Hill discovered yet another market when his works were published in the volumes Picturesque California and In the Heart of the Sierras in the late 1880s. During his declining years, Hill saw the art market change dramatically and interest in his work decline. Since his death in 1908, Hill's reputation has steadily increased and is now assured based on a solid body of outstanding work.
About Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite
Although Hill visited Yosemite many times during his adult life, and even lived there for extended periods, this artwork was most likely painted from views published in contemporary photographs, although Hill based most of his works on sketches and field notes. While many of Bierstadt's Yosemite paintings displayed more dramatic light, along with “manipulated” scenery, Hill was more faithful to the topological details. Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite reveals the influence of Hill's Barbizon training. In this work, he uses a looser brushstroke, creates more texture and achieves more faithful atmospheric effects. The limited range of colors allows the relative values of dark to light to convey the drama. While most landscape artists of his era included figures in the foreground to dramatize scale and the insignificance of humans in relation to nature, Hill used only daubs of color to indicate people and to achieve this contrast. There is enough form to these daubs to identify the figures and shelter in the lower right hand corner of the composition as a small Indian camp. Many landscape artists included Indians in their scenes to reinforce the sense of wilderness. Hill, though, respected Native cultures and frequently incorporated sensitive depictions of them in his sketches and paintings.
Themes in Art and Literature
The poet, the painter, the sculptor, the musician, the architect, seek each to concentrate this radiance of the world on one point, and each in his several work(s) to satisfy the love of beauty which stimulates him to produce… Thus in art, does nature work through the will of a man filled with the beauty of her first works.
From “Nature” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1836
Hill's aesthetic response to nature came from his exposure to the Hudson River School . Not a school, but a style of painting, this approach was developed by artists who lived and worked in the Hudson River Valley in the early 19th century. Led by Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, they celebrated the distinctive qualities of the American landscape through spiritually inspired, large-scale canvases. They used a glowing palette of colors and emphasized dramatic land features. As painters pushed farther west for subject matter, they recorded sublime views of mountains, meadows, streams and animal life, with little or no reference to human beings, and every reference to a Supreme Being. The idea of a pristine wilderness touched on the concepts of sublime (awe-inspiring) and picturesque (scenic). These concepts paralleled the Romantic movements in literature and music. In particular, the Transcendentalists associated God and nature, comparing newly discovered wilderness areas to Eden . In sketching from nature, artists tended to interpret it in emotionally invoking terms. In 1871, the same year in which Hill created this painting, Ralph Waldo Emerson visited the Yosemite Valley and met John Muir.
After the Civil War, vast panoramas of unspoiled wilderness served as reminder of the redemptive, healing quality of nature. Audiences concerned about the social costs of industrial progress also saw salvation in nature. Paintings such as Hill's Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite not only conveyed California 's natural wonders to other parts of the country, but also inspired movements to preserve these wilderness spots and to designate them as state and national parks. Hill and his friend Muir called attention to these valuable natural resources.
California Consultancy for Arts Education, Inc. Print Portfolio: Lesson Plan Packet for Thomas Hill's Great Canyon of the Sierra, Yosemite.
(Uncredited author ), Boston Evening Transcript , November 18, 18 71
Marjorie Dakin Arkelian, Thomas Hill: the Grand View. Oakland, CA : The Oakland Museum Art Department, 1980
Janice T. Driesbach, Direct From Nature: The Oil Sketches of Thomas Hill. Yosemite National Park, CA: Yosemite Association and Sacramento, CA : Crocker Art Museum , 1997
Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature,” Nature; Addresses and Lectures. (www.emersoncentral.com/beauty.htm ) (April 2005)
Thomas Rogers, “A Matter of Perspective: Thomas Hill's Yosemite Valley Panorama,” The Californians , March/April 1990