Lillian Wilhelm Smith

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 (Note:  The following is an excerpt from Shadows on the Mesa-Artists of the Painted Desert and Beyond.)


The One-Eyed Man of the Salt Clan came to Ashton Sosi with a question. He had just returned from the White Canyon Natural Bridges in Utah, where he had been sent by the Wetherills as a guide for a party of white men.

“Why do they want to go” he demanded. “Why do they want to ride all that way over the clay hills to see--just rocks?”

“That is why they go,” she explained.  Just rocks in those strange forms, making bridges. There is nothing like them anywhere else in the world.”

The One-Eyed Man of the Salt Clan considered the matter. "They aren’t the only bridges in the world,” he objected. “We have a better one in this country.”

"Where is there a bridge in this country?” asked Ashton Sosi.      

"It is back of Navajo Mountain. It is called the Rock Rainbow that Spans the Canyon. Only a few go there. They do not know the prayers. They used to go for ceremonies, but the old men who knew the prayers are gone. I have horses in that country, and I have seen the bridge.”


1909 conversation between Ashton Sosi (Louisa Wetherill) and Sharkie, The One-Eyed Man of the Salt Clan, a Navajo customer at the Oljato Trading Post



In one of the entries immediately preceding those of the Swinnerton/Dixon party, a woman signed in as “Mrs. Westbrook Robertson-Scottsdale, Arizona”. She noted her stay would be from August 7th to September 24th, which meant she had arrived before most of the guests and planned on staying several weeks after they left. Of all the artists present that night, Mrs. Robertson was the most familiar to the Wetherills. She had been coming to Kayenta nearly every summer for almost a decade.

Like Swinnerton and Dixon, Lillian Wilhelm Robertson had spent several years in New York City. She claimed to have been born in Gotham in 1882, although her true homeland was Germany. However, having grown up in Manhattan, the image of a native New Yorker was an easy myth for Lillian Wilhelm to create.  

Wilhelm had been a child prodigy. After being impressed with one of her sketches of the family governess, her father placed her under the tutelage of a private art instructor at the age of 10.  She was accepted by the Art Students League by the age of 12. Although many of her influences are lost to history, it is known she studied for several years at the Art Students League and later at the National Academy School of Fine Arts. She was given an education that placed a premium on technical proficiency and tradition, but had started her serious study of art at a time when impressionism had crossed the Atlantic and become not only acceptable, but fashionable.

Like all true artists, she possessed a strong drive, believing “Work is a panacea and destroyer of all sorrowful thoughts.” One of her high school teachers noted of her, “I have often noticed that you strive to do better than others. You do not like to be superseded.”

The oldest of seven children with an often distracted mother, the burden of caring for her younger siblings often fell on Lillian. It was a time when women were believed to be creatively and intellectually limited, and expected to aspire to no more than being a wife and mother. However Lillian’s innate drive was accompanied by a decidedly different set of internal values. At the age of 16 she wrote in her diary:


“I suppose I am not yet old enough to be fascinated by this living for the children –I’m too selfish. Good God –I cannot! I love them, but is there not something beside this everlasting trifling –why not live for Science- for Art! My brain seems to nearly burst at times when I think of something new, and weird and strange –ache to get my pencils, but am bound by the little creatures on my lap.  It is a grim relief to shed bitter tears when I’m alone –oh I am burning to shake off all the trammels of conventionality and stand –alone- free and for Art!”


Ironically, Wilhelm’s first experience with the American West took place not in Arizona but in New York City. In March, 1907 William Cody’s Buffalo Bill’s Wild West came to Madison Square Garden.  Wilhelm was escorted to the show by an up and coming novelist named Zane Grey. Grey, who was married to Wilhelm’s cousin, Lina Roth, helped arrange permission for her  to sketch portraits of many of the show’s Sioux and Arapaho participants. It was a life changing experience. She found their countenance much more intriguing than those of the New York City aristocrats she was used to painting. It seemed as though these dignified, composed former lords of the plains wore their lives on their faces. Although it would be more than six years before Wilhelm made her first trip west of the Mississippi, from that day forward she was fascinated with the American West.

At the time of Buffalo Bill’s Show, Zane Grey was on the cusp of becoming one of the best selling American novelists of all time.  Shortly afterwards, he left for a trip with a well known Western guide, Charles “Buffalo” Jones, for northern Arizona. When he returned, the publication of three books over the next several years, including The Riders of the Purple Sage, vaulted him into the limelight of a nation enthralled with romantic tales and images of the West.

During one of Grey’s subsequent trips to Arizona he was introduced to the Wetherills. Grey had become captivated with stories told to him by members of the Navajo tribe of the wild, uninhabited land to the west of Navajo Mountain. Of particular interest was a massive natural stone arch that spanned nearly 300 feet –a breathtaking landmark that in time would be designated as the largest natural bridge in the world.

The Navajo called the formation “Nonnezoche,” or “Rock Rainbow that spans the canyon”-a slightly more poetic description than the name given by the Paiutes: “Under a Horse’s Belly”.

Grey determined to use the area as the setting for his sequel to The Riders of the Purple Sage. Although a significant part of Navajo legend for generations, no known Anglo had ever laid eyes on Rainbow Bridge until John Wetherill led the Cummings-Douglass archeology party there in 1909.  One account claims Wetherill spurred his horse ahead of the group in order to gain the distinction of being the first white man to pass under the arch; others state he had “plunged ahead in order to prevent a diplomatic awkwardness” that would have occurred had either Cummings or Douglass, rivals in the archeology world, been declared the winner. Regardless of his true intentions, Wetherill still “preferred archeologists to adventurers.” Nonetheless he agreed to guide a Grey led party to the bridge in 1913.

Despite the strong social bias at the time towards women artists, Grey was confident enough in Wilhelm’s abilities that he asked her to accompany him on the expedition for the purpose of providing illustrations for the sequel. Like most of the young women in Grey’s retinue, theirs was likely more than a professional relationship .  By now Wilhelm had already chosen to shake off the “trammels of conventionality” and had made a deliberate choice to live her life differently from most women of her generation.  Not surprisingly, she later recalled “It was not hard” for Grey “to persuade me to come West.”

After arriving in Flagstaff in April, 1913 the method of transportation changed from train to horseback.  Wilhelm described what followed in an interview over 20 years later.


“I was initiated into my life in this blessed land by a four hundred mile horseback trip, accompanied by a chuck wagon with supplies.  We left Flagstaff to penetrate into the shimmering beauty of the Painted Desert region… Our dear old guide, Al Doyle, who showed me how to ride like a cowboy so that the long twenty-five and thirty miles that constituted the day’s loping and trotting would not greatly tire me, showed me a place at the end of the day where I could paint, and try –and oh how I tried- sometimes to the point of tears –to interpret the divine beauty of those sunsets.”


It was a full seven day ride from Flagstaff to Kayenta, which marked the end of the easiest part of the Rainbow Bridge expedition. At Tuba City, the halfway point, Wilhelm had been introduced by Grey to John Wetherill. Upon her arrival three days later in Kayenta, she met John’s wife, Louisa. Although the Kayenta Trading Post proprietors were born and raised Westerners, who found Wilhelm’s “city ways” rather strange, it was the beginning of a deep friendship that would last for three decades.  


After a few of days rest, the Wetherill led party left Kayenta, and headed north to Monument Valley. During the first night’s encampment an intense thunderstorm enhanced the already stunning and eerie effects of the horizon’s monolithic buttes and mesas.  The following day they reversed course and traveled over 25 miles to the southwest.  There, in a narrow pass on the Shonto Plateau where Skeleton Mesa and Black Mesa converge, the riders entered a place called Tsegi (say-gee, or Rock Canyon) by the Navajo. The group made their way along the sandy, lush floor, surrounded by vertical sandstone cliffs nearly 1,000 feet high in places. After taking side trips into one of the many box canyons, in and out of the aspen and fir groves, past Betatakin and Keet Seel, two of the largest and best preserved pueblo ruins in the Southwest, they ascended on a steep traverse from the canyon floor to an open plateau.

The seemingly endless mazes of chasms and the views from the Shonto Plateau later inspired Grey to write in his journal “I imagined there was no scene in all the world to equal this. The tranquility of lesser spaces was here not manifest. This happened to be a place where so much of the desert could be seen and the effect was stupendous. Sound, movement, life seemed to have no fitness here . . . The meaning of the ages was flung at me.  A man became nothing.”

The trip would take a week. The days were long, the riding cumbersome, but Wilhelm was so inspired by the natural beauty she recalled being completely oblivious to the “creature discomforts of desert wind and sand and sun.”  

The group continued northwest for several miles to the base of Navajo Mountain. It was here Hoskinini and his Red Streak Clan followers eluded Kit Carson’s 1864 expeditionary force –one of the few Navajo clans to avoid the Long Walk and subsequent internment at Bosque Redondo. Although Hoskinini’s stronghold was deep into the heart of Ute territory, it was so isolated even the Dineh’s tribal enemies were unaware of its existence.  Fifty years later it was still the most uncharted, inaccessible region of the Southwest.

Wetherill led the expedition west and then north around the base of the mountain. The last 15 miles were a winding, twisting, harrowing ride, in and out of canyons, across slick rock, dry sandy washes and through thick undergrowth. It was a route that four years earlier W.B. Douglass, one of the leading archeologists from the 1909 expedition, told John Wetherill “no woman will ever take.”   Arriving without incident just four years later, Lillian was actually the seventh woman to make the trek, but she was the first artist of either gender to paint the magnificent sandstone formation.

Carved by Bridge Creek meandering its way to the Colorado River over millions of years, through sandstone formed in two geological eras, the bridge spans 275 feet and stands nearly 300 feet high. To the Navajo it was an important religious symbol of rainfall and fertility. To Shefford, the main character in The Rainbow Trail, Nonnezoche “was the one great natural phenomenon, the one grand spectacle . . . that did not at first give vague disappointment, a confounding of reality, a disenchantment of contrast with what the mind had conceived.” (The author himself later noted in his autobiographical collection of essays, Tales of Lonely Trails, ". . . this thing was glorious. It absolutely silenced me." It was a reaction not too dissimilar from the first impression of an unnamed cowboy John Wetherill liked to quote: “When I seen it I couldn’t swear!” )

The party spent 10 days in the area.  Lillian created numerous sketches in pencil, ink, and watercolor, later recalling she painted “like mad.”   She later wrote on the back of a photograph from the expedition that the picture “must have been taken by a member of the Zane Grey party.  I was too busy painting.” The effort later resulted in the payment of $170 by Harper and Brothers for four paintings used in The Rainbow Trail.

Like Swinnerton and Dixon, Wilhelm fell in love with the Colorado Plateau on her first visit. Although greatly moved by “the magnificent material Arizona presents to the artist” she decided at the trip’s conclusion to head back home for further study.  Her first experience in the Southwest had made her realize how much improvement she needed in the understanding and application of color.

Her reaction was not unique. The year before, Arthur Dow, who believed in a rigid and structured approach to composition and colorization, had decided his color theories required serious revision after an extended trip to the Grand Canyon. Lillian sought Dow’s tutelage, but she had returned to New York right after the 1913 National Armory Show. It was a time when intense debate raged in many circles about the future direction of art in America. As the old dogma of what constituted acceptable art was slowly being replaced by new dogma, Maynard Dixon noted of well known promoter Alfred Stiegletz and the New York art scene in 1923, that he had tired of the “hot-house atmosphere and fake modernism” and after “observing so much cleverness and futility, I was glad to quit the stale-air existence and come out West.”  

Although Wilhelm’s return was several years before Dixon’s observation, the same attitudes he encountered prevailed. Perhaps it was also fatigue with “so much cleverness and futility” that drove Wilhelm to make two more trips to Arizona in 1914 and 1916; or perhaps it was just a simple case of her being attracted to the subject matter she loved best. Both trips were financed by Zane Grey for the purpose of providing illustrations for his novels. Undoubtedly monetary considerations also played a role. By 1917, driven by a confluence of events and influences, she had decided “New York meant only a fine background, and a month away from Arizona seemed wasted.”

Wilhelm first settled in Phoenix, living at the base of Camelback Mountain. For the next several years the winters would be spent in the Valley of the Sun and summers on the Colorado Plateau. She continued to sketch and paint illustrations for Zane Grey novels. In 1922, with the help of a loan from Grey, she purchased a 20 acre citrus ranch in a small, dusty agricultural hamlet named Scottsdale.

It was also around this time she married Westbrooke Robertson. It is interesting to note that during her two trips to Kayenta that year (the first in April) she signed in as “Mrs. Westbrooke Robertson.” She also signed the paintings accompanying the entry as “Lillian Wilhelm Robertson,” even though both times she had made the trip alone.  Little is known of Westbrooke Robertson.  The marriage was short lived, “a mistake.” Possibly because of her efforts to erase any memories of him over the years, even when they were together he seemed an insignificant part of her life. But among all of her adventures and misadventures, by August of 1922, Lillian Wilhelm Robertson, who would in time be better known as Lillian Wilhelm Smith, had already traveled and painted the state more extensively than anyone else at Kayenta that evening.




End Notes


Frances Gillmor and Louisa Wade Wetherill. Traders to the Navajos. (Albuquerque, New Mexico, University of New Mexico Press 1952.) 130  It should be noted that accounts of this exchange vary from source to source, on the subject of whether or not Sharkie had actually seen the bridge or only heard of it.

Donna Ashworth. Arizona Triptych. (Flagstaff, Small Mountain Books, 1999) 184

Ibid. 172

Ibid. 174

Ibid. 189

Sources vary as the whether or not the relationship was platonic. Donna Ashworth, Smith’s biographer believes it likely was, but correspondence between Wilhelm and Grey, printed and referenced in Thomas H. Pauly’s Zane Grey-His Life, His Adventures, His Women would seem to indicate the relationship was physical.

Unknown Title, Arizona Republic, January 5, 1921

Thomas H. Pauly. Zane Grey-His Life, His Adventures, His Women (Urbana and Chicago, University of Illinois Press, 2005). 126

Unknown Title, Prescott Courier, March 3, 1965

Frances Gillmor and Louisa Wade Wetherill, Traders to the Navajos. 170

John Stewart MacClary, “Trail-blazer to Rainbow Bridge”, The Desert Magazine, June 1938. 34

Ashworth. Arizona Triptych 196

Ibid. 198

Grant Wallace, Maynard Dixon: Painter and Poet of the Far West (San Francisco: California Art Research Project, WPA Project 2874), 83.

Lillian Wilhelm Smith, Ashworth. Arizona Triptych. 211

Ashworth.  Arizona Triptych. 223


Sedona from Schnebly Rim


Lillian Wilhelm Robertson Charley Yellow Boy

Charley Yellow Boy

Painted at Buffalo Bill's

Wild West Show in 1907

Lillian Wilhelm Robertson Rosie Yellow Boy

Rosie Yellow Boy

Charley's sister


Trading Post near Tuba City, Arizona

Circa 1920's 


Cover for

The Border Legion

Frontispiece for

The Rainbow Trail


Lillian Wilhelm Robertson

Lillian Wilhelm Smith in northern Arizona-Circa 1926

Photo courtesy of Sharlot Hall Museum-Prescott, Arizona




 Lillian Wilhelm Smith Superstition Mountains

Superstition Mountains, Arizona


Lillian Wilhelm Smith

Lillian at work in the south Pacific


Navajo motif dinnerware


Navajo Mother and Child




Four Peaks





Lillian Wilhelm Smith-Seven Palms                                                    Seven Palms





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