There is no romanticism in the pictures of William Henry Holmes [1846-1933]. He emptied them of mystery. His Western panoramas serve science more than art.
No mists enshroud his mountains; no sunsets streak his skies. In the pictures that he left us -- now on view in the Rotunda of the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of Natural History -- the light of reason shines on the landscape of the West.
Most other Western artists, suspicious of exactitude, exaggerated broadly. Their lofty peaks and boiling skies were meant to make us shiver. Holmes set out to show us what was really there.
He climbed mountains and crossed deserts, explored the Grand Canyon, went to Utah and Wyoming. As a scientist employed by the U.S. government, he was not aiming at the beautiful. But he achieved it nonetheless.
Two factors make his pictures both pleasing and impressive. The first is their precision. The second is that Holmes knew what he was looking at. He did not have to guess. He understood erosion; he knew how lava cooled. Only a geologist -- and though trained as a painter, Holmes would later win prizes for his science -- could have made these scientific illustrations. Audobon knew birds; Holmes knew Western rocks.
Cameras show everything: the moisture in the air, the shadows cast by clouds, the mosses and the trees. But Holmes edited his pictures. His panaramas show us details of topology no camera could see.
Holmes was born the year that the Smithsonian Institution was established. Their stories are intertwined.
He joined the Smithsonian as a scientific illustrator in 1871. He drew fossils and rare shells, lived for a short while in one of the towers of the Smithsonian's Castle, and spent his last 12 years with the Smithsonian serving as director of what then was called the National Gallery of Art. [It since has been renamed the National Collection of Fine Arts.]
In his long career he produced more than 200 scientific publications. A self-taught anthropologist, he became director of the Bureau of American Ethnology, and twice won the Loubat prize, an award given every five years for distinguished work in anthropology. He was a founder of Chicago's Field Museum and of Washington's Cosmos Club. And he was the designer of the Western exhibitions at both the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876 and World Columbian Exposition that opened in Chicago in 1893.
Holmes was already an accomplished explorer and geologist when he went to work for the newly established National Geological Survey in 1879. His current exhibition marks the centennial of the Survey.
Most of Holmes' prints and drawings have long been hidden in scientific libraries and in dusty volumes, but Western art is booming now, and they are being seen again.
They seem somehow timeless. Holmes liked to use thick ink lines in foregrounds, and thin ones in his backgrounds, and the landscapes that he shows us are seen absolutely clearly, in bright, unsparing light. In deep receding space. His sharp, well-made drawings still delight the eye. They will remain on view at the Museum of Natural History through Nov. 11.