This story originally ran in the Winter 2015 issue of Tahoe In Depth. Click here to read more stories and view past issues.

John Ross Key, View of Lake Tahoe, not dated, Oil on canvas, 16 ¼ x 30 ¾ inches, Collection of Oakland Museum of California, Oakland Museum Kahn Collection

200 years of Tahoe art

Museum showcases 400 pieces of art and artifacts from lake’s rich history

By Tom Lotshaw
Tahoe Regional Planning Agency

From handwoven baskets to sculptures, paintings, photographs, and modern art, an exhibition at Nevada Museum of Art in downtown Reno explores 200 years of art history inspired by Lake Tahoe, Donner Pass, and the surrounding Sierra, one of America’s most inspiring and beloved landscapes.

“TAHOE: A Visual History” showcases more than 400 pieces of art and artifacts the Nevada Museum of Art worked for five years to assemble from museums, libraries, archives, and private collections around the country.

The museum-wide exhibition opened in August and is on display through Jan. 10, 2016. Fifteen- thousand people visited the first two months.

“This is a very comprehensive and foundational project for our region,” said Ann Wolfe, senior curator and deputy director at Nevada Museum of Art. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance for people because these objects will likely never be together in one place again.”

The exhibition is organized around sections and themes. They include native basketry, life, and legends; first European American views and historical mapping and sketches; 19th century painting; 150 years of Tahoe photography; Tahoe timber; architecture and the rise of the resort and leisure; and contemporary art. Together, they show how Tahoe has inspired artists and influenced art and culture for more than two centuries, and how it continues to do so today.

“Fine art and art history in many ways define people’s understanding of place and cultural identity. This exhibition filled a significant gap in our regional knowledge and our understanding of ourself and what this region has contributed to our nation’s art history,” Wolfe said.

Photographer unknown, Louisa Keyser marketing photograph with LK 44 and LK 59, commissioned by A. Cohn, circa 1916, Gelatin silver print, 8. x 6. inches, Courtesy of Nevada State Museum, Carson City

Native Basketry

The exhibition opens with some of Tahoe’s earliest art, and the largest collection of Washoe baskets ever assembled in one place. For generations, the Washoe wove to meet their needs, creating various baskets and tools and tending willow groves to raise the best possible withes for their weaving.

The Washoe wove “burden” baskets that were used to carry heavy loads between Washoe Valley and their sacred mountain lake; cradles to carry infants; baskets to store and serve food; “beaters” used to harvest seeds; scoops and trays; and traps to catch fish in streams.

The Washoe wove especially tight containers to hold water, making large ones for storage at their camps and small ones to carry along for travel. When filled, the containers’ willow fibers swelled to make them nearly watertight, and a coating of pitch enhanced that seal and flavored the water.

Woven snowshoes allowed the Washoe to travel over the snow, “skimming along like birds,” according to one account by 19th century explorer John Charles Fremont.

The exhibition includes many of these functional examples of Washoe basketry. But it also features the highly decorative, fine art baskets created by Louisa Keyser (Datsolalee) and other well-known Washoe weavers. Washoe baskets were highly sought after during an arts and crafts movement in the late 19th and early 20th century, when middle-class households around the country were collecting baskets and other handmade Americana to decorate their homes.

Mapping a Lake in the Sky

The exhibition’s section on mapping and sketches highlights the imaginations and the discoveries of early mapmakers and explorers, and the gradual appearance of the lake that has been variously known as Mountain Lake, Lake Bonpland, Lake Bigler, and, finally, Lake Tahoe, on maps of the vast American West.

John Charles Fremont was the first European American to spot Lake Tahoe. Standing on a peak near Carson Pass with scout Kit Carson in 1844, Fremont reported, “a beautiful view of a mountain lake at our feet, about 15 miles in length, and so entirely surrounded by mountains that we could not discover an outlet.”

Exhibit sections on painting and photography showcase the beauty of Tahoe’s natural landscapes and the allure they have had on artists. But they also show the arrival of mining and the railroad, and how those activities left the Tahoe Basin clear cut of trees, denuded and unrecognizable within decades of Fremont’s first glimpse of the lake.

That rapid environmental degradation left famed Sierra naturalist John Muir and many others distraught. Muir worked to have Tahoe set aside as a national park, but the effort fell a few votes short in Congress in 1889.

A contemporary art section at the exhibit brings together the works of modern-day artists who continue to draw inspiration from the Tahoe region and, like Muir and many others in the past, remain concerned about its environmental health and future.

Frank Lloyd Wright, Lodge Type Cabin, Lake Tahoe Summer Colony, California: Perspective and Plan, 1923, Graphite and colored pencil on Japanese paper, 21 x 13 ¾ inches, Collection Centre Canadien d ’Architecture/Canadian Center for Architecture, Montreal, Gift of George Jacobsen and of the CCA Founders Circle in his memory, 1994, © 2014 Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation, Scottsdale, Arizona/Artists Rights Society (ARS)), NY

Summer Colony at Emerald Bay

The exhibition’s section on Tahoe architecture ranges from the conical pole shelters and floating fishing platforms of the Washoe Tribe to the cabins and stores of early settlers and the appearance of hotels, resorts, lodges, and magnificent Tahoe estates.

Coupled with the rise of recreation and resort life at Tahoe, one display focuses on designs that famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright developed for a Summer Colony at iconic Emerald Bay.

Drawn up in 1923 for Jessie Armstrong, whose family owned 500 acres of land in Emerald Bay, the designs proposed a collection of terrestrial cabins along the shoreline and a fleet of floating cabins that could be towed out and moored in the bay, as well as a country club and clubhouse built on a pier extending out to Fannette Island.

Inspired by Emerald Bay’s natural beauty, Wright proposed an “architecture of place” that used native building materials and designs to complement the landscape. Armstrong was never convinced of the project’s feasibility, however, and sold the property to Lora Josephine Knight, who in 1928 and 1929 built Vikingsholm, the magnificent castle of stone and hewn timber that today graces the shoreline in Emerald Bay State Park.

The Book

Nevada Museum of Art has published, “Tahoe: A Visual History.” The 488-page book is available for purchase at the museum store, at select area bookstores, and online at

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