KCTS 9’s “Land of Beauty & Bounty” provides an in-depth look at the history of the Pacific Northwest and the exploration of the West as seen through the Seattle Art Museum’s June 30–September 11, 2011 exhibit on American Landscapes. The documentary explores how landscape paintings and photographs of the late 19th Century fueled the world’s fascination with the Western Frontier, shaped America’s concept of the Northwest Territories, and provided fodder for debates about stewardship of our “magnificent, untamed wilderness.” These are environmental debates that rage on to this day.
Support for KCTS 9’s "Land of Beauty and Bounty" was generously provided by the Walker Family Foundation.
When I was a reporter in commercial TV news, I had a running joke with my producer: whenever I could not obtain video for a news report I would say, “I’ll draw you a picture.” Video is so crucial to television that my comment is akin to giving a starving man a picture of something delicious. But imagine a time when showing someone a picture was truly showing him the world. Long before video, long before film, and even before photography was widespread, paintings were the primary way people learned about faraway places. That was still the case in the mid-1800’s when artists were venturing into the American West to paint the Rocky Mountains, Yosemite, the Columbia River and the Pacific coastline. To east coast Americans, the western landscape was like nothing they had ever seen. Not even the European Alps for which they yearned could compare. Fascination with western landscapes grew to such a fevered pitch, some artists would stage theatrical releases of their latest canvas – and charge admission as if to the latest Broadway play.
But did artists endure painstaking journeys to the West (remember, this is pre-highway and transcontinental railroad) for pure artistic motives? There’s a saying in news reporting: to find the truth, follow the money. The truth is many of these artistic sojourns were bankrolled by the titans of industry. The barons of logging, mining, railroads, and banking viewed landscape paintings as an early form of public relations, subconsciously inviting easterners to visit, and eventually move, to the west. However, as publicists well know, sometimes efforts to seize the public’s imagination have unintended consequences. I found one such consequence absolutely fascinating.
In my research, I learned that President Theodore Roosevelt loved western landscape paintings. He owned several ranches in North Dakota and had a well-documented love affair with the west. Did the paintings have something to do with his urgency to conserve vast stretches of national forest? I tracked down his great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt IV in New York, who says without a doubt, yes. The other factor was his unusual friendship with Gifford Pinchot, who became President Roosevelt’s first chief of the Forest Service. Like Roosevelt, Pinchot’s family also owned numerous landscape paintings and befriended many of the painters. In fact, Gifford Pinchot was named for Sanford Gifford, who painted the iconic “Mount Rainier, Bay of Tacoma” an image many of you would recognize by sight, if not by name. I also tracked down Pinchot’s grandson, Gifford Pinchot III, who lives in the Seattle area. Together, he and Theodore Roosevelt IV put forth a compelling argument for the role of landscape painting in the conservation movement. I’m certain the moguls of industry had no idea “their” paintings would serve such a mission, one that is often contrary to their goals! What’s more, President Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot beat these moguls at their public relations game. They convinced a whole nation that even if they personally never get the opportunity to soak in the natural beauty that painters captured, wouldn’t they want it preserved for their children, their grandchildren, and their descendents to come?
In producing “Land of Beauty & Bounty,” I am reminded yet again of another journalistic truism: try as you might to be objective, all of us are nonetheless subject to our own perspective. That is never more true than for landscape painters. They are not photographers, capturing on silver albumen, the glorious sights before them. The ways in which they convey what they see – and sometimes what they’ve never seen – is awe inspiring. That is something I cannot describe; you should see it for yourself.
Josephine Cheng, Producer