Artists often find inspiration from a sense of place. Although it’s no Big Apple or City of Lights, Jackson Hole has a draw on artists from all over the world.
A large part of that magnetism is due to the stunning natural landscape. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem awes international observers with its flora, fauna and geological features. Closer to home, the iconic mountainscape of the Tetons draws millions of visitors to Grand Teton National Park each year.
“It’s a wonderful place,” said Amy Goicoechea, director of programs and events at the National Museum of Wildlife Art. “It has this historical confluence of the power of creativity and of the environment that brings not only artists but collectors. Jackson has become, over the past 20 or 30 years, a top arts destination.”
For seven years the National Museum of Wildlife Art has hosted a Plein Air Festival on its doorstep, the Sculpture Trail overlooking the National Elk Refuge. Each year 50 artists are invited to paint “en plein air,” a landscape art tradition in which artists venture outdoors to paint the scene as they see it before them.
Many of the artists aren’t local, Goicoechea said. They travel for the views of Jackson’s landscape.
The Art Fair, hosted each year by the Art Association of Jackson Hole, also draws artists from around the country.
According to Kathryn Jeffords, director of marketing and communications at the association, artists come to Jackson “not only to be inspired by landscape but to have that separation from all the noise of living in a city and have the space here to grow and work and reflect.”
“Beyond being inspired by the landscape and wildlife, the valley offers something unique for artists,” Jeffords said.
The recorded history of art in the valley began in the 19th century.
Albert Bierstadt, an American painter known for his sweeping, golden light-suffused landscapes, painted several pieces of the Tetons. Although historians doubt whether he set eyes on the mountain range in his expeditions west in the late 1850s, vistas like the Tetons had captured public imagination and proved bankable subject matter.
In 2016 a detail of his oil painting “Scenery in the Grand Tetons” was featured on a Forever stamp commemorating the centennial of the National Park Service.
Thomas Moran was likely the first well-known painter to actually see the Tetons. Moran traveled on a U.S. Geological Survey trip to northwestern Wyoming in 1871. His sketches and paintings of Yellowstone helped convince Congress to designate area the world’s first national park, a move that has served as a template for conservation in countries around the globe. His 1895 work “The Three Tetons” now hangs in the Oval Office opposite the president.
Though the valley is no longer the untouched, unpopulated place it was a century and a half ago, legions of artists, local and visiting, have sought inspiration from its scenery. One of the most prolific, local artist Conrad Schwiering, painted hundreds of landscapes and captured the changing of the seasons in the Tetons in vibrant color.
The mountainscape has also been rendered in other mediums. In 1942 American landscape photographer Ansel Adams trained his camera on the Tetons and captured a scene that helped establish photography as an art form in its own right.
The iconic shot, “The Tetons and the Snake River,” also swelled the fame of the Tetons with its reproduction in subsequent decades in prints, posters and calendar pages. The photograph surpassed global fame for something a bit more cosmic when it was encoded on NASA’s Golden Record with other material intended to represent the sounds and images of Earth and sent with both Voyager spacecraft on their 1977 launch. Onboard Voyager 1, the image of the Tetons left the solar system in 2012 and entered interstellar space.
In addition to photography, the well-known skyline of the Tetons has been styled in acrylic, oil, watercolor, pen and ink, pencil, screen print, sculpture and on less highbrow mediums like postcards, posters, advertisements, T-shirts and logos.
The environment of Grand Teton National Park has also served as an inspiration to musicians. The annual Wyoming Festival features new compositions inspired by the park’s wild lands. Composers invited to create for the festival hail from around the U.S.
Whether auditory or visual, the Tetons likely have made an appearance in more art than any mountain range in the West.
The concept of Jackson Hole is deeply entwined with the natural environment, but its artistic force extends beyond geography. Cowboy culture has long lured artists from around the country and inspired countless works in art, film, music, fashion and design.
The popularity of spaghetti Westerns, films made in Europe about the American West, illustrates the reach of that allure.
Many films about cowboys and their escapades were shot closer to the source, in Jackson Hole. A full list would be longer than a cattle drive in the heat of July, but a few of the better-known titles include 1922’s “The Cowboy and the Lady,” John Wayne’s 1930 “The Big Trail,” 1940’s “Wyoming,” 1951’s “The Big Sky,” 1953’s “Shane,” 1963’s “Spencer’s Mountain” and Clint Eastwood’s 1976 “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
A colorful version of the romantic West lives on the paintings of Ray McCarty, some of which now hang in the Silver Dollar Bar. The mythos of the Old West has also captured art history notables like Norman Rockwell and Andy Warhol. Rockwell’s anthology of early 20th-century life includes figures in cowboy hats and chaps in his nostalgic but realist style.
In contrast, Warhol’s “Cowboys and Indians” reimagines Western images in bold pop style, juxtaposing famous figures like Annie Oakley and General George Custer against Native American imagery.
The genre of Western art undoubtedly owes a debt to Native American culture. Not only have indigenous populations often been the subject of Western art, their own art style and materials frequently merge with those of the Old World’s art traditions. Alongside the oils of early expeditioners and acrylics of modern Western painters are geometric weaves and pottery, beadwork and turquoise jewelry.
Jackson’s aesthetic of “The Last of the Old West” has more than piqued the interest of some abroad. China built a replica “Jackson Hole” two hours north of Beijing, complete with tall wooden storefronts, locals dressed as cowboys, and interiors decorated in full Western accoutrement, including antler chandeliers, cowhide and wagon wheels. The town places Jackson Hole among the likes of Paris and London, the monuments and architecture of both of which China has also duplicated.
The fountain of Jackson Hole’s artistic inspiration springs from many sources. At the crossroads of wildlands and Wild West past, Jackson continues to inspire new generations of artists and write new chapters in the history of Western art.