National Gallery of Art

Washington, D.C.


First Retrospective of Landscapes by Thomas Moran at the National Gallery of Art, September 28, 1997; Includes Yellowstone Images that Inspired U.S. Congress to Establish First National Park


Thomas Moran, Green River Cliffs, Wyoming, 1881

Click on image for larger view


The first retrospective of paintings by Thomas Moran (1837-1926), long recognized as one of America's foremost landscape artists, will be on view at the National Gallery of Art, East Building, September 28, 1997-January 11, 1998. The exhibition will feature approximately 100 of Moran's finest watercolors and oil paintings, which provided Americans with breathtaking views of the American West, including the first images of Yellowstone. Viewers will be able to see a selection of Moran's paintings of Yellowstone that inspired Congress to establish the first national park in the United States. The Thomas Moran exhibition coincides with the 125th anniversary celebration of the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Also included in the exhibition is the painting, The Three Tetons, which hangs in the Oval Office of the White House.


Thomas Moran, Green River Wyoming, 1879


The exhibition is made possible by generous support from The Boeing Company. In 1988, The Boeing Company sponsored the exhibition Sweden: A Royal Treasury 1550-1700 at the National Gallery of Art. The Moran exhibition is being organized by the National Gallery of Art, in Association with the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, which holds the largest collection of works by Moran. After its showing in Washington, the exhibition will be at the Gilcrease Museum, February 8 - May 10, 1998, and the Seattle Art Museum, Seattle, Washington, June 11 - August 30, 1998.


Thomas Moran, Trojes Mine, 1883



(From the exhibition brochure)


In June 1872, just a few weeks after Yellowstone became America's first "national park," Congress purchased Thomas Moran's spectacular painting Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It was the first landscape painting to hang in the nation's Capitol. Eleven months earlier Moran had accompanied the first government-sponsored expedition to Yellowstone. The drawings and watercolors he brought back from that trip helped convince Congress that this strange land of geysers and hot springs should be preserved. The artist went on to create equally stunning images of the Grand Canyon of Arizona, the Colorado Rockies, the Grand Tetons, and the desert Southwest. Justly celebrated as one of the premier painters of the American West, Moran was an artist of wide-ranging interests whose major works also include Pennsylvania forest scenes, industrial landscapes, views of Venice, seascapes, and studies of Long Island. In this, the first retrospective exhibition of works by Moran ever held, the great western landscapes are brought together with equally accomplished works from all periods of the artist's extraordinary career.


Early Years

Thomas Moran was born on February 12, 1837 in Bolton, England, the son of a hand-loom weaver whose life had been irrevocably changed by the advent of the Industrial Revolution. Displaced by labor-saving machinery, Thomas Moran Sr. emigrated to America. He settled his family in Kensington, Pennsylvania (near Philadelphia), in 1844. After a short period of apprenticeship with an engraving firm, the young Thomas began working in the studio of his older brother Edward, also an aspiring artist. During the 1860s Thomas and Edward (often joined by their brother John, a professional photographer) undertook numerous sketching trips in the forests surrounding Philadelphia. The paintings executed in the studio from these sketches, including The Autumnal Woods, reflect the influence of the American Pre-Raphaelites, whose fascination with the natural world generated extraordinarily detailed landscape studies. Of even greater importance to young Thomas Moran was the work of England's foremost landscape painter, J.M.W. Turner. In Philadelphia Moran knew Turner's work primarily through prints and engravings. Eager to see Turner's paintings - and his colors - Thomas and Edward Moran traveled to England in 1862.

In London they made copies after paintings by Turner and later followed his sketching route along the coast of England, noting the "liberties" he had taken with the landscape. In 1866 Thomas returned to Europe to further his study of paintings by European masters and to exhibit his major early work, Children of the Mountain, in the Exposition Universelle in Paris in the spring of 1867. At times mistaken for a western landscape, the picture was in fact an artistic invention. In 1867 Moran had not yet crossed the Mississippi River or seen the Rocky Mountains. Four years later, however, he used this painting as collateral to help finance the western trip that changed the course of his career.

Yellowstone and the West

In the summer of 1871 Moran traveled to Virginia City, Montana, where he joined the first government-sponsored expedition to Yellowstone. Led by Ferdinand V. Hayden, the survey party was instructed to map and measure the region that had been variously described as "the place where Hell bubbled up" and "Nature's Wonderland." Working with William Henry Jackson, the expedition photographer, Moran completed numerous watercolor sketches of Yellowstone's hot springs, mudpots, geysers, and waterfalls. Although intended for his personal use, Moran's watercolors (along with Jackson's photographs) were shown to members of Congress, who voted to set aside Yellowstone as America's first national park in March 1872. Shortly thereafter Congress appropriated $10,000 for the purchase of Moran's Grand Canvon of the Yellowstone, the painting that launched his career. Measuring seven by twelve feet, the panoramic view of Yellowstone Canyon featured the distant falls and a striking display of the canyon's golden walls. In the foreground Moran placed a group of figures that includes F. V. Hayden and the artist himself.

Two years later Congress purchased a second, equally grand landscape by Moran, Chasm of the Colorado, painted following the artist's 1873 trip with John Wesley Powell to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River. In 1875 Moran completed the third of his great western landscapes, Mountain of the Holy Cross, a view of a famous Colorado peak with a cross of snow on its side.


Thomas Moran, Pass at Glencoe, Scotland, 1882


Although he had hoped to exhibit all three paintings at the Philadelphia exposition celebrating the nation's centennial in 1876, Congress refused to lend the two pictures it had purchased. Intended to form a grand western triptych, the three paintings are seen together for the first time in this exhibition. As a visual reflection of the American debate that set westward expansion in opposition to the preservation of "sacred landscapes," the paintings occupy a central position in American cultural history.

By 1878 Moran had established himself as one of the major landscape painters of his day, rivaling in stature even Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902), who had introduced the panoramic western landscape a decade earlier. Unlike Bierstadt, who painted almost exclusively in oil, Moran created some of the most dazzling watercolors of the late nineteenth century. Often begun in the field, Moran's watercolor sketches frequently served as the basis for multiple studio variations. Among the most compelling is the Yellowstone watercolor Great Springs of the Firehole River. Beneath broad strokes of transparent color, the pencil sketch Moran used to define the landscape is still visible. Sprinkled throughout are the artist's color notes. Later in the studio version of the same image, Lower Geyser Basin, Moran translated his field notations, including "stumps," into literal elements.

In 1876 a variation on the same image was published by Louis Prang as a chromolithograph in one of the most remarkable printing efforts of the nineteenth century. Even before Prang's portfolio spread news of Yellowstone and Moran to a wide audience, the artist had begun signing his work with a three-letter colophon (TYM) that represented the professional name he had recently adopted: Thomas "Yellowstone" Moran.


Green River

When Moran journeyed west for the first time in 1871, his sights were set on Yellowstone, but the trail to the land of geysers passed through another remarkable landscape - one that would become as closely associated with Moran as Yellowstone - the Green River Valley of Wyoming. Once the site of the fur trappers' annual rendezvous, Green River had more recently served as the western terminus for the Union Pacific Railroad. By the time Moran arrived, the burgeoning town on the banks of the river could boast a schoolhouse, church, hotel, and brewery. Exercising a degree of artistic license worthy of Turner, Moran erased all signs of commercial development, concentrating instead on the multicolored buttes rising above the river. In paintings that contained more fiction than fact, Moran replaced railroad tracks with Indian caravans. Skillfully combining the spectacular landscape of Green River with figures that reflected an increasingly nostalgic view of Indian life, Moran produced a series of paintings that were so popular that he continued to sell variations on the theme well into the twentieth century.


East Hampton

While he was enjoying critical and commercial success with his paintings of the West, Moran also found inspiration in other subjects. In the 1880s his long-time enthusiasm for marine painting grew stronger following his move to East Hampton, Long Island. From the cottage and large studio he built on Main Street in 1884, the artist had easy access to the beach, where he could study the sea in all its moods. Moran's numerous marine paintings include several shipwrecks - disasters all too common along the eastern shore of Long Island. During the same decade Moran began to paint the Long Island landscape as well. Surprisingly, these pastoral views soon rivaled his western landscapes in popularity among his contemporaries. Equally notable from this period are Moran's industrial scenes. One of the most impressive is Lower Manhattan from Communipaw, New Jersey. Looking across the Hudson River from the sugar refineries on the Jersey waterfront, Moran offered a shimmering view of the Manhattan skyline. Extraordinarily adept at capturing the reflective interplay of sunlight, water, and a city's facade, Moran created similar views of the harbor at Vera Cruz and, more often, Venice.


Distant Ports

Moran saw Venice for the first time in 1886, but he was well acquainted with the city before he arrived, for Venice had been one of Turner's favorite subjects. Having seen the city first through Turner's eyes, Moran traveled to familiar sites to secure the watercolor sketches he would need to produce studio paintings when he returned home. Views of Venice were enormously popular near the end of the nineteenth century, in part because the city seemed a poetic, Old World refuge from an industrialized America that was pushing full speed into a new age.

An indefatigable traveler, Moran also journeyed to Cuba and Mexico during the 1880s. in central Mexico he completed several watercolor drawings of the region surrounding a silver mine located near Maravatio. Two of these, Trojes Mine and In the Canvon above Trojes, Mexico, are among the most accomplished of all his field studies. In studio paintings Moran often used transparent glazes applied in layers in an attempt to capture in oil paint the luminous quality of thinly applied watercolor washes. Field studies like those of the Trojes mine, however, have an immediacy that could not be duplicated in the studio. Moran's rapidly executed open-air sketches convey the essence of a scene with a remarkable economy of line and color.


Return West

In the spring of 1892 Moran journeyed to Flagstaff, Arizona, where he was joined by his longtime friend William Henry Jackson. Together they returned to the Grand Canyon and later Yellowstone - the landscapes that had made both men famous twenty years earlier. Commissioned by the Santa Fe Railroad to produce a painting of the Grand Canyon that could be used for marketing purposes, Moran was about to enter a business relationship (providing images for calendars, advertisements, etc.) with the railroad that would prove one of the most sustained and profitable of his career.

It was on the 1892 trip that Moran created one of his finest field sketches. Titled In the Lava Beds, the small watercolor juxtaposes the massive lava walls of the Grand Canyon with delicate wisps of smoke rising from the campfire built by Moran and his companions. In the foreground, isolated and spare, is Jackson's camera. Mounted on spindly legs that appear to have been painted with single strokes from a tiny brush, the camera seems aptly emblematic of the fragility of the human enterprise in a landscape as overpowering as that of the Grand Canyon.

In 1899 Moran suffered the greatest loss of his life - his wife Mary died after ministering to fever-ridden soldiers returning from Cuba and the Spanish American War. Their youngest daughter, Ruth, also became ill but eventually recovered. Shaken, Moran may have sought solace in the Far West, for in the summer of 1900, accompanied by Ruth, he journeyed to Shoshone Falls on the Snake River in Idaho. Several generations of water reclamation projects have significantly reduced the grandeur of Shoshone Falls, but at the time of Moran's visit the cataract was rightfully called "the Niagara of the West." When he returned to his studio, he began work on the last of his panoramic western landscapes, Shoshone Falls. Like Chasm of the Colorado, this work is a rolling, turbulent statement about the power of water. Coursing through a gorge flanked by stone battlements, the steel gray water of the river plunges more than 200 feet over a serrated edge. Thunderclouds, dark and threatening, move swiftly along the distant horizon. Late in life Moran could still convey the savage grandeur of the American West.


Final Years

When Shoshone Falls was shown in New York and later in Buffalo at the Pan-American Exposition, praise for the work was tempered by a critical assessment that found the artist to be of the "old guard." Charles Caffin may have spoken for many when he wrote in 1901 that, while Moran's painting was impressive and deserved praise, his "preference" was no longer for the "grand and panoramic in nature." Never again would Moran attempt a painting on the scale of Shoshone Falls. Time and the market had changed.

Blessed with energy and good health, Moran continued to travel and paint well into his eighties. He died in Santa Barbara, California, in August 1926, shortly before his ninetieth birthday. Described in obituaries as the "dean of American landscape painters" and "the father of the National Parks," Moran was the first professional artist to see and paint some of America's most spectacular landscapes. So compelling were his images of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon that they remain the standard by which all others are judged.

From the exhibition brochure written by Nancy K. Anderson and produced by the department of exhibition programs and the editors office.

Copyright,1997 Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Also see the Smithsonian Magazine article on Moran, plus other links.

Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.

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