Worthington Whittredge painted The Lonely Graves after traveling west for the first time in the summer of 1866. Accompanying General John Pope's expedition out of Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, Whittredge traveled by horseback to Fort Kearney, Nebraska, and then onto Colorado and New Mexico. Near Fort Kearney the artist sketched the graves of travelers buried on the plains and upon returning to his New York studio produced this painting based on his on-the-spot oil study. "I had never seen the plains or anything like them," he wrote. "They impressed me deeply. I cared more for them than for the mountains." In depicting the simple graves, alone on the vast plains in somber light, Whittredge conveyed the transience of life and the majesty of the American landscape.