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Picturing The Past

Underground History 1-Courtesy Peter Boag.jpeg
Peter Boag
Washington State History Professor Peter Boag pictured here with one of Parrott’s paintings depicting Mt. Hood.

With disruptions to many summer plans, southern Oregon and northern California residents have been increasingly turning to their own backyards for recreation, inspiration, and much needed change of scenery.

Lucky for us, there is no shortage of beautiful vistas to explore and fill our Instagram feeds. In an homage to these summer adventures, we invited historian Peter Boag on our July episode of Underground History to discuss his current research on early Western landscape painter William S. Parrott (1844-1916). Parrott arrived in Oregon as a child and spent his early decades working in the Willamette Valley.

These images helped to introduce both a local and an international audience to the wonders of the West.

Parrott first gained recognition after he was commissioned to paint ten images of the Modoc War for a travelling exhibit in the 1870s, but was best known for his paintings of the Cascade Mountains across Oregon, Washington, and California. Parrott spent several productive years in Klamath Falls, and the mountains that dot our region were popular subjects in his prolific body of work.

Parrott came from an artistic family and mentored, among others, Ashland artist Grace Russell Fountain. Like photographer Peter Britt, these artists were sharing views that many would never see otherwise. Parrott’s obituary stated that Mount Hood was his favorite, but that didn’t stop him from painting other picturesque summits such as Mount Shasta, Crater Lake, Mount Rainier, and Mount Saint Helens. These images helped to introduce both a local and an international audience to the wonders of the West. With looming peaks and moody colors, these scenes allowed the viewer to negotiate their place in relation to the ‘wild’ landscape—creating a new Western identity and much of the associated aesthetic that remains to this day. This includes the presentation of the West as uninhabited landscape. As Boag pointed out, these artists not only used artistic license to present the frontier in their own image, they were also removing the Indigenous population from that frame.

Parrott painted up until he died at age 71 at his home outside of Goldendale, Washington. He left behind a vast collection, some of which hang in museums, galleries, and private collections, and likely others that remain unrecognized and might catch the eye of a keen yard sale enthusiast. Lucky for us, many of Parrott’s mountain muses are within easy reach and worthy of a summer road trip.

Keep an eye out for Boag’s future book to learn more about William S. Parrott. In the meantime, you can check out his other work here: https://history.wsu.edu/faculty/peter-boag/. My bookshelf has his 1992 Environment and Experience: Settlement Culture in Nineteenth-Century Oregon, which has helped me interpret and understand the archaeology of early homesteads in the region and his 2011 Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, a fascinating exploration of gender and sexual identity in the early West.

Chelsea Rose is an archaeologist with the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology (SOULA) and co-host of "Underground History", a monthly segment that airs during the Jefferson Exchange on JPR’s News & Information service.