Yellowstone Artist Series - WIDFORSS

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Gunnar Widforss 1924 watercolor

Gunnar Widforss (1879 - 1934) a lesser known painter than some of the others I have featured in my Yellowstone Artist Series, but definitely not because of the quality of his work! WOW, did he have a way with watercolor...

A fabulous painter born in Stockholm Sweden, he was the third of thirteen children. His mother studied art at The Technical School (now Konstfack) and was a noted amateur painter. At 16, he began studying art at the same school to become a painter himself. In his 30's people began to take note of his work. In 1913 when he was 34, Anders Zorn (one of Sweden's best known painters and one of my absolutely favorite artists!) purchased a painting from him.

Primarily a watercolorist, Widforss traveled extensively searching for great landscapes to capture. Planning to travel to the Orient to paint in 1921, his funds ran out on his way to Japan as he was traveling across America. He landed in California, and so began exploring and painting.

In Yosemite, he found strong rock formations and deep atmospheric space which he captured so well. He made many friends there - including the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, who became a strong supporter of his work. Mather suggested that Widforrs focus his creative attention on America's National Parks... and so he did.

Gunnar Widforss painting in Mesa Verde

Angel's Landing 1923

He became known as the "Painter of the National Parks". Painting Zion, Bryce, Crater Lake, Mesa Verde, Carlsbad Caverns, Death Valley and more and in 1923 made a trip to Yellowstone.

Eventually, he began spending more time in the Southwest and especially Grand Canyon, where he ended up living on the South Rim. He exchanged paintings for a room and meals. Since he preferred to work plein air, he made frequent strenuous hikes into the Canyon with his paints. Many of his paintings were displayed in a Gallery in the lobby of the El Tovar Hotel there.

Aspens on the North Rim

A major exhibit of his work was presented at the National Gallery of Art in 1924 which included 72 watercolors mainly of the western National Parks. William Henry Holmes, the first director of the National Gallery said "these are some of the finest things of their kind to have come out of the West". I agree :)

The Yellowstone Heritage and Research Center has a Widforss painting in their collection from 1924 that is a gorgeous watercolor of Jupiter Terrace...

I had the chance to sit with it, study and paint it. A tremendous piece of art that shows his true mastery of the watercolor medium. The slight color transitions and handling of the warm and cool areas is exquisite. VERY impressive!

A close up of Widforss "Jupiter Terrace" watercolor

In November 1934, Widforss was warned by a doctor that he should move to lower elevations because of a serious heart condition. He went back to the Grand Canyon to pick up his belongings and say farewell to his friends there. He died suddenly of a heart attack as he drove away from the El Tovar Hotel on November 30, 1934 and was buried in the Grand Canyon South Rim Cemetery.

He left us some absolutely spectacular watercolors of our western National Parks to revere and appreciate. If you'd like to see more of his work and learn more about him, click here.

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