Shortly after the Smithsonian was founded in August of 1846, one of its most talented and prolific staff members, William Henry Holmes, was born in Cadiz, Ohio, on December 1. The youngest of three boys, William displayed his artistic talents early, but his father saw no future in such pursuits and steered him into teaching. After a few years teaching geography, natural history, and art, his father gave him $200 to further pursue his teacher training, but in 1870 the young Holmes took the money and ran – heading instead to Washington, D.C., to study art under a well-known teacher, Theodore Kaufmann. A fellow student, Mary Anna Henry, daughter of the first Smithsonian Secretary, Joseph Henry, encouraged him to visit the Castle to sketch the birds and other specimens on display. His work attracted the attention of the scientists there and soon he was hired by the paleontologist Fielding B. Meek to produce scientific illustrations. He had to learn to harness his artistic imagination and focus on accuracy and details, but his work soon passed muster with the Assistant Secretary in charge of the National Museum, Spencer F. Baird.
In 1872, he joined the Ferdinand V. Hayden Expedition to survey the western territories, specifically the Yellowstone National Park area, to produce drawings of the geology of the region. His extraordinary works captured the depth and relationships between strata in a way that the new technology of photography could not. But he also quickly learned geology and advanced to the position of geologist on later expeditions. When the US Geological Survey was founded in 1879, he joined its staff as a geologist and chief of scientific illustration. He set professional standards for geological illustration while continuing field work. On his many trips to the West, he was intrigued by the visual patterns on wall art, pottery and other artifacts of ancient peoples. With his talents for visual observation and analysis, he began to see relationships and changes in design over time. So he next turned his attention to the new field of anthropology, specifically archaeological techniques for documenting the remains of past civilizations. He brought his knowledge of stratigraphic analysis to methods for excavating sites, and his visual analysis skills to tracing innovation, imitation and synthesis in object design. After a brief career in Chicago, in 1897 he returned to Washington and was made a curator in the National Museum’s Department of Anthropology. In 1902, was appointed director of the Bureau of American Ethnology at the Smithsonian, serving until 1909, then returning to the museum’s Department of Anthropology as its chair.
Holmes continued to refine his skills as an artist, sketching nearby and whenever he traveled. He joined art clubs and encouraged young artists. In 1920, he was named the inaugural director of the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art, getting the new museum up and running. Not a fan of modern art, he hoped the fad would soon pass in favor of styles like Thomas Moran and Frederick Church. After sixty years at the Smithsonian, he retired in 1932, and died the following year at his son’s home in Ohio.
Artist, scientific illustrator, geologist, archeologist, administrator, museum director – Holmes made a bewildering array of contributions to the early Smithsonian. He was born and grew with the Smithsonian. As new fields and opportunities appeared, his ever creative mind saw new possibilities and challenges, so he sought to meet them all. With his exceptional visual talents, Holmes was unique in the history of the Smithsonian in the breadth of his reach, spanning art, culture, and science but proving that one person can make contributions to them all.
Explore William Henry Holmes' field notes and sketches at the Smithsonian Transcription Center--and join other volunteers in transcribing!
Celebrating Our Man of Many Hats: William Henry Holmes, Smithsonian Libraries
Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, SIRIS Blog
William Henry Holmes: Artist Biography, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Scientist of the Day: William Henry Holmes, Linda Hall Library