Gunnar Mauritz Widforss was a Swedish-born artist who came to America in the 1920s and specialized in painting National Park landscapes.
Today, Gunnar’s watercolors are renowned throughout the world, but nowhere more than at his adopted home, Grand Canyon National Park.
In the early 1900s, Gunnar honed his artistic skills in Europe and Africa, gaining acclaim among European royalty for his intricate landscapes known for their almost photographic detail.
But Gunnar was a true artiste, and he declined to cash in on his connections. By the time he came to America in 1920, he was living a Bohemian lifestyle, trading his paintings for rooms and meals.
In Yosemite Valley, he became friends with Stephen Mather, the first Director of the National Park Service. Mather became one of Widforss’ greatest advocates and suggested that he focus his artistic attention on America’s national parks. It was advice Widforss followed for the rest of his life.
Eventually, Gunnar established a studio at the South Rim of Grand Canyon and painted canyon scenes extensively.
He made a deal with the Fred Harvey Company, which operated the South Rim visitor services, to exchange his paintings for an employee dormitory room and meals at Bright Angel Lodge.
His works were exhibited in the art gallery in the lobby of the ritzy El Tovar Hotel. Over the years, Gunnar cultivated an extensive network of friends at Grand Canyon.
In 1934, while he was in St. Louis for an exhibit of his work, Gunnar became ill. A doctor told him that he had a serious heart condition. It was imperative that he leave Grand Canyon and move to a lower elevation.
Gunnar was devastated. The canyon was his home and his favorite subject to paint, and he loved his friends there.
But he had no choice. He returned to the South Rim to say goodbye and collect his belongings.
His friends proposed that they gather at the Bright Angel Lodge for one last game of cards. Gunnar packed his car at the El Tovar Hotel and began the short drive south along the rim to Bright Angel Lodge.
On the way, he experienced chest pains. He pulled his car over, got out, and collapsed.
A doctor arrived quickly, but it was too late. Gunnar died of a heart attack, next to his car, just yards from the rim of Grand Canyon. He was 55.
Gunnar Widforss is memorialized three times at Grand Canyon. The first is the Widforss Trail, which meanders along the North Rim of Grand Canyon.
The second is Widforss Point, a narrow, wooded promontory overlooking the canyon where the trail ends.
The third is Gunnar’s grave. He is buried in the pioneer cemetery at South Rim Village.