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Visions of the Big Sky: Painting the Northern Rocky Mountain West is a gorgeous book, but don’t be fooled into thinking is just a collection of 140 illustrations.  University of Montana history professor Dan Flores has provided erudite essays that elucidate the work of the greatest artists of the American West.

Flores includes several artists who are famous for their work in other locations, but the bullseye of his target is smackdab in the middle of Montana. Inclusion of artists like Ansel Adams and Albert Bierstadt, who are famous for their work in other locations, shows that the western artists of the Big Sky are world class.

Because of my interest in Yellowstone National Park, I paid particular attention to Flores’ chapters on William Henry Jackson and Thomas Moran, who accompanied the 1871 Hayden Expedition. Jackson’s photographs are credited with helping to convince the U.S. Congress to establish Yellowstone as the world’s first national park, and Moran’s painting of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone was hung in the U.S. Capital. I found Flores’ essays on these two artists accurate and enlightening. Doubtless his descriptions of artists I know less about are too.

Of course, the book includes the icons of Montana art like Charles M. Russell and Evelyn Cameron. After all, it is part of the Charles M. Russell Series on Art and Photography of the American West from the University of Oklahoma Press.

Visions of the Big Sky would be a great book to put on your coffee table for your guests to leaf through. But they shouldn’t skip the marvelous text. Neither should you.