WESTERN U.S. EXPLORATION AND
BOTANICAL ART (1845 - 1870)
The mid-nineteenth century was an intense period of botanical discovery in the American West, largely as a result of the great survey expeditions mounted by the federal government to further the country's westward expansion. Some of the finest representations of Sonoran Desert plants to this day were created for these expedition reports of the newly acquired lands in the western territories. While none of these great expeditions were specifically scientific in nature, they nonetheless provided the government and scientific community with an enormous body of scientific information about the plants, animals, and geology of the lands west of the Mississippi.
Photography was still evolving in mid-nineteenth century—the equipment was bulky, difficult to transport, and unable to produce predictable results. Instead, the exploratory expeditions into the American West relied upon topographic artists and draftmen to record the landscapes. Every major expedition included at least one artist who could capture the enormity of what the parties were discovering. From the beginning of the century these artists were recording antelope and buffalo, Indian culture, mountain ranges, unfamiliar and unusual vegetation, bizarre geologic formations, and most spectacularly, the depths of the Grand Canyon.
Many of the artists possessed more curiosity and enthusiasm than studied artistic ability, yet they were able to create hundreds and hundreds of quite fine illustrations that were to bring the vast beauty of the West to the rest of the country . Of the trained artists, Paulus Roetter, John Mix Stanley and Isaac Sprague stand out. While Roetter and Sprague prepared botanical illustrations from collected specimens in their offices in St. Louis and Boston, Stanley, an experienced and passionate explorer, eagerly ventured into the west. Perhaps not skilled to the same degree were Arthur Schott, Balduin Möllhausen and John Russell Bartlett, all of whom had respectable artistic abilities if not training; they traveled with the expedition parties and endured the usual hardships that were compounded by extreme heat, cactus spines, rattlesnakes, and Indian attacks, all the while managing to create volumes of evocative illustrations.