Beyond the Brush: The Art of Environmental Conservation

A look at landscapes in SAAM’s collection and the wildlife that lives beyond the paintings

Brynn Garner
December 4, 2023
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William Henry Holmes, Field of Joe Pie Weeds (Pride of the Meadow), n.d., watercolor on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Dr. Anna Bartsch Dunne, 1962.4.9
William Henry Holmes, Field of Joe Pie Weeds (Pride of the Meadow), n.d., watercolor on paperboard, sheet: 15 1⁄4 x 20 1⁄2 in. (38.8 x 52.0 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Dr. Anna Bartsch Dunne, 1962.4.9

While I was growing up, I spent a lot of time at art museums and galleries with my aunt, an art history professor, and my grandmother, who I called “Nanny.” Nanny had art prints hanging all over the house, all of which I now proudly have on display in my own house.  

My strongest passion, however, was for the outdoors. I was constantly in awe of the natural world around me, and I knew early in my life that  I wanted to be an environmental conservationist. As such, I was always drawn to the landscape paintings on those museum visits, and I couldn’t help but wonder about what fish, wildlife, and plant species the artist may have encountered.  

I now work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service where every day I am grateful to be serving our mission “to conserve, protect, and enhance fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the continuing benefit of the American people.” However, I still retain a deep appreciation for art.  As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service celebrates the 50th Anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, I am honored to join with the Smithsonian American Art Museum to highlight just a few of the landscape paintings from their collection and go in-depth about some of the fish, wildlife, and plants that make their homes in the ecosystems and habitats depicted by artists like Albert Bierstadt, De Lancey Gill, Winslow Homer, Myrna Báez, and Chiura Obata.   

I hope these new interpretations will spark your curiosity. The next time you view a landscape painting, take a minute to think about what you cannot see—the fish that might be swimming below the water’s surface or the birds building their nests in the trees.

The magnificent beauty of the natural world is a manifestation of the mysterious natural laws that will be forever obscured from us.

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Albert Bierstadt, Among the Sierra Nevada, California, 1868, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Helen Huntington Hull, granddaughter of William Brown Dinsmore, who acquired the painting in 1873 for "The Locusts," the family estate in Dutchess County, New York, 1977.107.1

Every time I see Albert Bierstadt’s Among the Sierra Nevada, California, I am left in awe. The incredible detail still leaves me questioning, “Is this really a painting?” Just like the groups of deer and waterfowl near the bottom of the painting, there are many other species that call the Sierra Nevada home, including  the Sierra Nevada red fox. The Sierra Nevada red fox is smaller than most other fox species, has fuzzy paws and is covered by a thick fur coat—all adaptations to survive the heavy winter snows and challenging alpine conditions. Despite its name, Sierra Nevada red foxes can be either mostly red, mostly black or a grayish brown cross phase.  

Photograph of a red fox

Sierra Nevada red fox; Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Sierra Nevada Distinct Population Segment was listed as endangered in 2021. Only about 18 to 39 individuals remain in the wild today. This small population continues to be vulnerable to losses from  unpredictable events like wildfire and drought, competition with coyotes, decreases in prey numbers, and widespread hybridization with non-native foxes.  

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De Lancey Gill, Mouth of James Creek, n.d., oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of E. J. Pretzlaff in memory of William E. McCleary, Jr., 1989.90

When you think of Washington, DC, you may not immediately think of wildlife. With the Capitol building in the background, De Lancey Gill’s Mouth of James Creek is a reminder of the natural havens that parks and National Wildlife Refuges provide wildlife and people, even in  the busiest cities. In the summer months, if you listen closely, you might be able to hear the flute-like song of a wood thrush. This species is most likely to be spotted in the underbrush or on the forest floor, so keep an eye out for its reddish-brown back feathers or its white and brown speckled underside. After breeding, wood thrush make their way to wintering grounds in the lowlands of Mexico and Central America.  

Photograph of a wood thrush on a branch.

Wood thrush; Photo by Michael Schramm, Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Like many species of migratory birds, the wood thrush is subject to habitat loss, degradation, and fragmentation not only in its breeding grounds, but also in its wintering grounds and along its migration route. The species is undergoing sharp declines in population and is likely to experience range contractions as a result of habitat loss and climate change.  

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Winslow Homer, High Cliff, Coast of Maine, 1894, oil on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans, 1909.7.29
Winslow Homer, High Cliff, Coast of Maine, 1894, oil on canvas, overall: 30 1⁄4 x 38 1⁄4 in. (76.8 x 97.2 cm), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of William T. Evans, 1909.7.29

Along the rocky coast of Maine, depicted in Winslow Homer’s, High Cliff, Coast of Maine, you might find a sea bird with bright orange feet and a multicolored bill. Puffins! Nicknamed the “clowns of the sea,” Atlantic puffins spend most of the year over the open ocean but build nests each spring and summer on rocky cliffs at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge.  

Photograph of puffins

Atlantic puffins at Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge; Photo courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Many of the thousands of islands along the Maine coast historically hosted thriving seabird colonies. By the late 1800s, egg and feather collecting, along with shooting, had wiped out the birds. Protections enacted in the early 20th century helped populations rebound. Now, 85% of the Atlantic puffins in the U.S. nest on three islands managed as part of the National Wildlife Refuge System. In addition, more than 98% of the terns in Maine nest on islands managed by the Service or its conservation partners. 

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Myrna Báez, Platanal, 1974, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Jaime Fonalledas, 2013.21

Myrna Báez’s, Platanal, likely depicts banana or plantain trees growing in Puerto Rico. If you are lucky, you might catch a glimpse of the Puerto Rican Puerto Rican parrot flying over the tops of the trees. A foot in length and primarily bright green, this parrot is distinct with its red forehead and blue primary wing feathers. This bird feeds chiefly on wild fruits, particularly the Sierra palm. Unique to Puerto Rico, this species is the only native parrot in the United States.

Photograph of a parrot.

A Puerto Rican parrot released into the wild at the Maricao State Forest in 2022; Photo by Jan P. Zegarra, Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In 2017, Hurricanes Irma and Maria decimated parrot habitat at El Yunque National Forest. At the time, the national forest was home to 56 wild birds. Some of them died during the storm, while others that survived the storm itself died from starvation or increased hawk predation because of Maria’s aftermath. In December 2020, The Service restarted its parrot-release program to enhance parrot populations on the island. Since then, it has released 81 birds. With the latest releases, the Service estimates that Puerto Rico is home to about 250 wild parrots. Recovery of this species has required a 30-year partnership between the Service and a consortium of wildlife and conservation organizations. 

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Chiura Obata, Upper Lyell Fork, near Lyell Glacier, 1930, color woodcut on paper, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of the Obata Family, 2000.76.5, © 1989, Lillian Yuri Kodani

The Lyell Glacier is the largest glacier in Yosemite National Park. It provides a year-round supply of cold water to the Lyell fork of the Tuolumne River, depicted in Chiura Obata’s piece. Going beyond the frame, visitors might find the mountain yellow-legged frog  along the water’s edge. The mountain yellow-legged frog includes two distinct groups: the southern distinct population segment (endangered in 2002) and the northern distinct population segment (endangered in 2013), separated by a 140-mile stretch of unsuitable habitat.  
 

Mountain yellow-legged frogs

Mountain yellow-legged frogs; Photo by Joshua Allen Ray, Courtesy of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The frogs are highly susceptible to a chytrid fungus commonly known as “Bd,” which attacks the frogs’ permeable skin through water or skin-to-skin contact. This fungus compromises their breathing and water balance. While some frog species can live through infection or even be asymptomatic carriers, others are vulnerable. Biologists and researchers from multiple agencies, including the Service, are working to combat Bd. 

Brynn Garner is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 

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