In a climate-controlled vault in Charles Town, West Virginia, four of the most beautiful paintings ever made of our national parks are hidden from public view. The panoramic works were created by Austrian artist Heinrich Berann, a pioneer of mountainscape painting. Among the more than 10,000 pieces of artwork stored in the vault that make up the National Park Service’s collection, Berann’s paintings are standouts.
“There's just something absolutely magical about his panoramas,” says Tom Patterson, a senior cartographer for the U.S. National Park Service. When people have asked Patterson for a tour of the facility, he says, “I would always ask the curators over there to open the drawers and show us the Berann art.”
The panoramas were created in the 1980s and 90s as part of a poster program to promote the national parks. The campaign also included works by the modernist artist Charley Harper. Last year, Patterson convinced a colleague to help him make high-resolution digital images of Berann’s paintings so they could be shared online with the public. Today, the National Park Service released the new images on their newly redesigned online map portal, which also has more than a thousand maps that are freely available for the public to download.
Berann made the panoramas starting in 1987 with North Cascades National Park in northern Washington state and ending in 1994 with the depiction of Denali National Park above, which was the last panorama he painted before retiring. The Austrian artist most likely came to the attention of the National Park Service through his work for National Geographic. Over the course of two decades starting in 1963, Berann painted around 20 panoramas and landscapes for the magazine, depicting everything from the two-square-mile Saba Island in the Caribbean to the entire Himalayan mountain range. Some of the highlights of his work for National Geographic appear in the gallery above.
Part of the appeal of Berann’s depictions of the national parks is that they look fairly realistic while at the same time greatly enhancing the landscapes in a number of ways. The end result is similar to what you might see from the window of a plane, and yet better than any possible real-world view, Patterson says.
Berann made sure all the important features of each park were visible in the scene. Sometimes this required some creative distortion. On the Yosemite National Park panorama below, for instance, Yosemite Valley is widened to allow all the rock formations, waterfalls, and man-made structures to be clearly seen. All of the valley’s iconic natural features are exaggerated, with Half Dome and El Capitan much taller than in real life, and the waterfalls significantly longer.
Berann also exaggerated features in the landscape of Yellowstone National Park, below. The plume of the Old Faithful geyser reaches unnatural heights in the upper right corner of the landscape, and the Old Faithful Inn next to it would be three-quarters of a mile long as depicted. Wyoming’s Teton mountains on the horizon are also inflated, and Berann swung them around to the east to reveal the most iconic view of the range rather than the end-on view that would exist from the viewer’s vantage point in real life.
The colors of Berann’s National Parks paintings are also augmented. “What's amazing is when you look at his art, especially up close, the colors that he paints with are just so saturated, so vivid, so unnatural compared to what you see on the ground,” Patterson says. “But somehow he uses these very vibrant colors, mixes them in such a way that they all just come together and look natural or somewhat natural on his final paintings.”
Another signature of Berann’s panoramas is the use of clouds in the sky, says Patterson. The Yosemite and Yellowstone paintings are wonderful examples of his technique of creating a vanishing-point effect with clouds. The North Cascades panorama below features another interesting cloud pattern that balances out the massive (and vertically exaggerated) Mount Baker on the right.
Ross Lake in the foreground of the North Cascades painting shows how Berann liked to showcase water bodies in his landscapes. “You just see those glimmering water surfaces on that panorama,” Patterson says. “Berann really felt that water bodies were special places, and he put a lot of emphasis on lakes,” often adding sunglints and reflections of surrounding mountains to draw the viewer’s eye.
The cumulative effect of all of Berann’s creative distortions were beautiful scenes that emphasized the natural beauty of the parks. He pioneered most of these techniques, many of which are still being emulated by cartographers today, including Patterson.
When he can, Patterson tries to incorporate many of Berann’s techniques into his own digital panoramic maps. “Obviously Heinrich Berann is one of my cartographic heroes” he says.