Art and the Great Outdoors

On nearly every wall in nearly every room of the galleries here at the Cleveland Museum of Art I see some glimpse of nature. Everywhere I look, some vast landscape vista, nature scene, or shimmering flower-spotted blue behemoth (I’m thinking of you, Water Lilies) catches my eye, stoking my desire to seek the outdoors and escape from our familiar web of concrete and asphalt. I have become somewhat of an outdoor enthusiast, exploring many wonderful places—Zion National Park, Adirondack Park, and Cleveland’s own Cuyahoga Valley National Park to name a few. However, my recent visit to Sitka, Alaska, was really something else. It’s a two-hour flight from the tip of the lower 48, but is hardly more than a gateway to the rest of that incredible state. If Alaska was laid over the continental United States, the southern leg would stretch into Florida, the northern tip (well within the Arctic Circle) would reach to North Dakota, and the Aleutian Islands would spread all the way west to Los Angeles. Sitka, situated right on the Pacific coast at the base of towering mountains, gave me a small taste of nature’s grandeur. It was the idea of Alaska’s vast expanse that inspired me to write this post, featuring artwork through which I can reflect on my experiences in the outdoors.

The flight from Seattle to Sitka follows the island-dotted coast of Canada and Alaska. Through the small gaps peppering the clouds below the plane, it was difficult for me to distinguish the terrain: was that dark jagged bolt an inlet jutting into the land or a peninsula cutting through the ocean? I gazed across the bumpy surface of the clouds—or were the bumps in fact mountain peaks penetrating from Alaska and Canada’s ranges? We often talk about our “favorite” natural settings: the ocean, the coast, the mountains…but from such a perspective all of those disparate settings are revealed to be intertwined as one nature rather than several parts. I see this very truth in Richard Diebenkorn’s Berkeley #42, an aerial view of a coastline, seen here running vertically through the lower half. 

Berkeley #42, 1955. Richard Diebenkorn (American, 1922-1993). Oil on canvas. Contemporary Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art. © The Estate of Richard Diebenkorn.

This work of Abstract Expressionism distills a typical landscape to its bare essence. For me, the essence Berkeley #42 evokes is the spirit of nature conceived as a whole.

I’m always so disappointed with the pictures I take of vistas. They’re always missing some indescribable sensation I had when experiencing it with my own eyes. This isn’t the case with Albert Bierstadt’s Yosemite Valley of 1866. What makes this work so true to me is less the magnificent scene than the thin trail and pair with their horse in the lower right.

Yosemite Valley, 1866. Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830-1902). Oil on canvas on panel-back stretcher. Hinman B. Hurlbut Collection.

When I arrived at the tip of Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park, I was floored by the majesty of the canyon and the sublime sunlight streaming through the clouds and glowing on the red-brown walls—similar to Bierstadt’s depiction of Half-Dome here. What really made that view in Zion so special to me, however, was the strenuous hike 3,000 feet up the canyon wall on switchbacks followed by the half-mile tightrope act along a knife-edge ridge, featuring a trail at most two feet wide with a sheer drop to the canyon floor on each side. The exhaustion and adrenaline from that grueling hike formed an integral part of the image I was seeing at the end. The pair in Yosemite Valley must feel the same way, out in what was then the far reaches of the frontier, accessible only by hardship, determination, and sheer willpower. When I see such views I am humbled, not amazed. Nature does not just plop itself before our eyes—we have to earn our fleeting look.

We throw around the word "wilderness" so much that it ought to apply to any patch of woods more than half an hour outside a city center. I imagine wilderness as a place where I have no advantages, where I’m no more special than a deer or tree, stuck in the cyclical and essential routine of survival. I know I’ve never been in real wilderness (I suspect few have), but the closest I’ve been to that feeling was my first solo camping experience on what was my first real backpacking trip. I was alone for 48 hours with only a small amount of food, a tarp, and a sleeping bag, and any sense of comfort or security required some act of labor. Nothing could be taken for granted. I basically didn’t sleep my first night, startled by every sound and the frightening conjurings my imagination pulled from the darkness (our flashlights had been taken from us). I had always had this idyllic conception of camping, but on that solo I found that nature is not necessarily comforting and friendly. I get this same reality check from these two works: New Mexico Recollection,c. 1923, by Marsden Hartley and Storm in the Mountains, 1847, by Frederic Edwin Church. Their dark and even ominous tone reflects an awareness of nature’s overwhelming and unforgiving routine, something we can only be fully aware of in true wilderness. 

New Mexico Recollection, c. 1923. Marsden Hartley (American, 1877-1943). Oil on canvas. Leonard C. Hanna Jr. Fund with additional support from the Gill and Tommy LiPuma Fund.

Storm in the Mountains, 1847. Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900). Oil on canvas. Gift of various donors by exchange and Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund.


These are just a few of many depictions of nature, a subject that has fascinated artists for as long as there has been art. Discover what they mean to you by experiencing them yourself at the Cleveland Museum of Art!


Guest Author

Benjamin Francisco

The Cleveland Museum of Art

Benjamin Francisco is a Cello Performance major at Rice University’s Shepherd School of Music, and an intern in the Communications and Marketing Department at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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