Utah Stories from the Beehive Archive

“The Most Noble Subject:” Utah’s Landscape Inspires Artists

HLA Culmer, Storm in the Mountain.jpg

Dublin Core


“The Most Noble Subject:” Utah’s Landscape Inspires Artists


Nineteenth-century painters used Utah’s impressive landscape to promote an awe-inspiring vision of the American West through their art.

For many people, thinking of the American West might conjure images of grandiose mountains, golden-orange canyons, and wide-open skies. Throughout the late-nineteenth century, artists painted Utah's majestic landscape -- what one local painter named Henry L.A. Culmer called “the most noble subject for an artist’s brush.” 

In addition to being a well-traveled artist, Culmer was an editor and businessman who spent much of his time exploring, painting, and writing about the mountains of Utah. The mountains were such an important muse to him, that at his funeral, the presiding reverend argued that Culmer's love of the mountains attained a near-spiritual quality. The reverend said of Culmer that, “the Wasatch and the other mountains of Utah were given a new meaning by… not the commercialization of copper and gold -- but [by] the beauties of nature as seen by him. [Culmer] saw more than he put upon his canvas -- he saw God.” 

Culmer tried to bring attention to the reason Utah's mountains were especially inspiring to artists of the American West. In 1892 he wrote for a local periodical, saying, “the mountains of Utah… possess attributes of beauty that are not surpassed by those of any other portion of the world …their beauty has struck the fancy and brought forth the praise of many of the greatest painters of America.” 

Culmer was right. Painters from the East Coast's Hudson River School were commissioned by several government expeditions to the American West to visually capture the landscape. Painting grand mountain peaks and the romantic play of light, their works highlighted the West's drama and grandeur.

In 1905, Culmer joined an official expedition to southeastern Utah and San Juan County to draw and paint the red rock formations there. Here, too, he found inspiration in the landscape that cemented a romantic image of the West into American culture. 

Although Henry Culmer always declared that Utah's mountains were “the most noble subject for an artist’s brush,” most Utah artists found a plethora of subjects that provided inspiration and nobility to their brush, pencil, canvas, or chisel.


By Springville Museum of Art © 2024


Image: H. L. A. Culmer, "Storm in the Mountain," courtesy of the Gail Miller and Kim Wilson Collection. Culmer's lauding of Utah's mountains came from experience. Culmer painted southern Utah, northern Arizona, the California coast, the Tetons, even Alaska.

See Emily Larsen, Most Noble Subject: Artists, Muses, and Inspiration in the Miller Wilson Collection (Springville, UT: Springville Museum of Art, 2023); Emily C. Burns, Transnational Frontiers: The American West in France, University of Oklahoma Press, 2018; Kate Nearpass Ogden, “Sublime Vistas and Scenic Backdrops: Nineteenth-Century Painters and Photographers at Yosemite,” California History 69, no. 2 (Summer 1990), 134-153; Anthony Kirk, “In a Golden Land so Far: The Rise of Art in Early California,” California History 71, no.1 (Spring 1992), 2-23.


The Beehive Archive is a production of Utah Humanities. Find sources and the whole collection of past episodes at www.utahhumanities.org/stories.