Gunnar Widforss: Painter of the National Parks Joins the Smoketree School

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Ed. note: Desert artist, museum curator and former Colorado river guide Alan Petersen is seeking work by Gunnar Widforss for a  new book. Please see the end of his article for details and a link to Alan’s own work.

Swedish-American watercolor artist Gunnar Widforss (1879 – 1934) worked in the California desert around Palm Springs and in the Coachella Valley from 1922 through 1933.

Gunnar Widforss, Desert Palms With Mountains. Courtesy Biltmore Galleries.

Gunnar Widforss, Desert Palms With Mountains. Courtesy Biltmore Galleries.

Widforss arrived in the United States from Sweden in January 1921. By that time he had made a career and established himself as a well-respected painter in Europe. There he had focused his activity along the French Côte d’Azur and the Swiss and Austrian Alps where he painted at popular tourist destinations known for their scenic beauty.

In January 1921 after arriving by train in Los Angeles Widforss, following his pattern of work, sought local tourist destinations where he might paint and make some sales. His first painting location was Mount Lowe where he spent several days and produced a number of paintings. He then traveled to Catalina Island where he spent most of February and sold some paintings to William Wrigley Jr. He returned to the mainland and made his way up the California coast to Carmel and eventually on to Yosemite Valley where he arrived in March 1921.

Gunnar Widforss in 1925, by Albert DeRome

Gunnar Widforss in Asilomar 1925, by Albert DeRome

Widforss is celebrated for his paintings of Yosemite and Grand Canyon and became well-known as the “Painter of the National Parks.” After 1926 he made the South Rim of Grand Canyon his home but he continued to paint in California and could often be found in the desert during the winter months. He enjoyed painting around Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley, often staying at the Indio Hotel.

Gunnar Widforss, San Jacinto

Gunnar Widforss, San Jacinto

He liked the desert environment and had spent six weeks in 1920 painting in Tunisia. He also regularly worked in the Phoenix area. Given his interest in desert subjects it is somewhat of a paradox that Widforss only painted in Death Valley twice in 1933. He exhibited regularly in San Francisco at Gumps and in Los Angeles at the Stendhal Gallery. He also exhibited with the California Watercolor Society and in 1928 won first prize at their annual exhibition for a painting of the Sierra Nevada.

Gunnar Widforss was a master of the watercolor medium. As may be seen in his Desert Palms and Mountains his work is characterized by accurate drawing and clear, brilliant light and color.

Alan Petersen, Curator of Fine Art at the Museum of Northern Arizona, is writing a book on Widforss’ life and art as well as compiling a catalogue raisonné of his work. Currently, he has more than 900 works listed. If you own any paintings by Gunnar Widforss or have information on his life and career Petersen would appreciate hearing from you.  For more information you can visit:

For Alan Petersen’s artwork see:

Alan Petersen, Canyonland

Alan Petersen, Canyonland




5 comments for “Gunnar Widforss: Painter of the National Parks Joins the Smoketree School

  1. Ann–thank you for introducing us to Gunnar Widforss.
    I enjoyed the information and beautiful paintings.

  2. I have been interested in Will Rogers and his painter friends and have been trying to trace any stories that may tie in with that era. Co-incidently Will Rogers was also born in 1879 and died at age 55, tragically in the infamous plane crash with Wiley Post in 1935.

    Bruce Brough (Will Rogers State Historic Park)

  3. Hi Bruce,

    I’d also be interested to know if Will Rogers and his artist friends spent time in the Coachella Valley. I see he was friends with Charlie Russell, Ed Borein and Joe De Yong. Many of the Western painters exhibited at Ginger Renner’s Desert Southwest Art Gallery so there is some overlap. Cowboy art was a major theme in the desert in earlier days.

    I’ll check Ed Ainsworth’s “The Cowboy in Art” for clues.


  4. I have a smoke tree painting by an artist named Carr that I have not been able to find out much about. If you know of this artist could you contact me at

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