Born in rural Ohio, Holmes supplemented his training as a scientist with art lessons in Washington, D.C. His career began in 1872 with the government-sponsored Hayden Survey, on which he served as official geologist and artist, traveling through Wyoming and Colorado. During an association that lasted seven years, Hayden credited Holmes's "usual zeal and skill" with inspiring "much of the accuracy and value of the work." A subsequent expedition in 1880 through the Grand Canyon resulted in the remarkable drawings and watercolors Holmes made to illustrate Clarence Dutton's official report of the journey. In later years, Holmes's interests turned to archaeology and then back to art, when he was named director of the National Gallery of Art (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum) in 1920. His watercolors combined poetic mood with a scientist's eye for the panoramic grandeur of the West.
Goetzman. Exploration and Empire.
Nelson, Clifford M. "William Henry Holmes: Beginning a Career in Art and Science." Records of the Columbia Historical Society 50 (1980): 252–78.
Trenton, Patricia, and Peter H. Hassrick. The Rocky Mountains: A Vision for Artists in the Nineteenth Century, pp. 166–77. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
Charles Eldredge, Julie Schimmel, and William H. Truettner Art in New Mexico, 1900–1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe (Washington, DC: National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, 1986)