Road Trip: Painted Deserts

Howard Russell Butler, Desert Landscape (#69), n.d., pastel on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Howard Russell Butler, Jr., 1978.65.4

Our website asks the question: Where Will American Art Take You? In response, we've put together an occasional series of artful road trips based on staff experiences and artworks in SAAM's collection.

There are always official set dates on the calendar that tell you a new season has begun, but for me, what really starts a new season is the traditions and experiences that I associate with that time of year. The changing of the leaves in the fall, the fun in the snow of winter, the new growth of spring, and then there’s summer. Summer officially starts with a baseball game and a good ‘ol road trip for me. Windows down, wind in your hair, maybe even a good audio book to keep you focused on the road. These are the things that I look forward to in the summer.

I recently got back from a road trip with a good friend of mine.  I’ve always been a huge National Park enthusiast, but had never been to Arches National Park in Utah, until now. The desert has a subtle beauty about it. I think it’s seen best in works like Howard Russell Butler’s Desert Landscape (#69) or any of David Hockney’s desert drawings. The color that exists when the lighting is just right can be quite beautiful. If you have ever studied color theory, or even just tried to recreate the desert on paper, you know that it’s not just one color that makes up what you see. It’s actually many colors coming together to get that perfect shade.

One thing I admire about any landscape work is the color. I’ll be honest, it’s not my go-to type of art. I tend to walk faster through that section of the museum to get to where I’m going. But, if you slow down, you can see the amazing color choices artists like Childe Hassam, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, George Catlin, Joseph Stella, Georgia O’Keeffe, Edward Hopper make in order to create a piece of work. I encourage you to look at their work on the second floor of our museum a bit closer next time.  Try and figure out which colors they mixed together in order to get the bright blue of the ocean, or the utopian idea of a lake.

My road trip is over and the humidity of the summer has arrived, but the nice thing is that I get to walk through the climate controlled museum looking at art that reminds me of the many places I’ve visited or would like to in the future.

As you go about the hot summer months, I hope you take the time to explore. Go on a road trip, or even just a day trip. Get up early to watch the sunrise, or stop to watch a sunset. If your road trip happens to be to Washington, D.C. come and visit us.  I’ll leave you with Albert Bierstadt’s Sunrise in the Sierras as an encouraging image to get your summer road trips started!

Untitled - 1967.136.8 - 3047

Albert Bierstadt, Sunrise in the Sierras, ca. 1872, oil on paper mounted on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Orrin Wickersham June, 1967.136.8