Thomas Moran images and biography
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Thomas Moran

See also: Hudson River School; American Art


"...But not, as it turned out, the principal gorges. That was left to a painter of Irish ancestry, born (like Thomas Cole) in Lancashire and raised in Philadelphia: Thomas Moran. Unlike Bierstadt, this son of poor immigrant handweavers was entirely self-taught. He got some training as an engraver and opened an engraving business with his two brothers. But his heart was in painting, and his predilections intensely, youthfully Romantic. One of his earliest canvases, Among the Ruins-There He Lingered, 1856, took its title from Shelley's Alastor; or, The Spirit of Solitude (1815), in which the pure young poet is imagined pursuing "Nature's most secret steps,"
The red volcano overcanopies
Its fields of snow and pinnacles of ice
With burning smoke, or where bitumen lakes
On black bare pointed islets ever beat
With sluggish surge....
"Shelley's imaginary landscape predicts the real one of Yellowstone that Moran would eventually paint. Indeed, one dealer was later able to sell a very early Moran entitled Childe Roland under a new and topographical title, The Lava Beds of Idaho. And Moran would always be on the lookout for the sublime, the exceptional, and the picturesque - landscapes that satisfied the Romantic prototype. Only the great scene, he viscerally believed, could produce the great picture. He would find such scenes in the West, and nowhere else.

"Moran rationalized his lack of formal training, as the self-taught are apt to do, with the belief that art was not "teachable." "You can't teach an artist much how to paint," he would declare in his later years. "I used to think it was teachable, but I have come to feel that there is an ability to see nature, and unless it is within the man, it is useless to try and impart it." Nevertheless, the example of two painters obsessed him: Claude Lorrain and Turner. He was able to spend a year in England in 1861 studying Turner and copying his works in oil and watercolor: in particular, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus, 1829, which Ruskin had called "the central picture in Turner's career." Moran kept his full-size copy of Ulysses in his studio thereafter, and it is not difficult to see why the painting had such a deep effect on him. Its high-keyed, unusually saturated color - yellows, ochers, crimsons, and rolling tracts of impasted white cloud - is just what Moran would reach for in his landscapes of the Green River and of Yellowstone. Turner's vision of Polyphemus' island, the crags on which the giant mistily reclines, is remembered in Moran's later visions - or, as he insisted, accurate transcriptions - of Western scenery.

"The turning point in Moran's career came in 1871, when Dr. Ferdinand Hayden, director of the United States Geological Survey, invited him to join an expedition into the Yellowstone area of Wyoming. At that time Yellowstone was terra incognita to the white man. It was known, for its hot mud lakes, geysers, and constant geothermal activity, as "the place where Hell bubbled up," but apart from a few mountain men and trappers, the only white man to describe it had been John Coulter, a member of Lewis and Clark's expedition, who strayed into it in 1807. The expedition was backed by the U.S. government, and Moran's role was funded partly by the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad - who reasoned, shrewdly, that the circulation of Moran's images of Yellowstone, and the publicity they got, might help create a new tourist destination and thus a profitable new railroad line.

"Besides Moran, Hayden brought along a former stagecoach driver turned photographer, William Henry Jackson. The two had worked together before: Jackson had accompanied the painter Sanford Gifford on Hayden's 1869 survey of Wyoming, and the two had made parallel images of the same scenes. With his cumbersome cameras, tripods, developing equipment, and fragile glass plates (some of them twenty by twenty-four inches, yielding the largest outdoor photographs ever attempted) all loaded onto pack mules, Jackson now worked alongside Moran. He provided the objective record of Yellowstone's world of wonders, for a public which believed the camera couldn't lie. Moran's watercolors, more interpretative, supplied the color. The photographs confirmed the reality of Moran's strange sketches of fumaroles, sulfur pinnacles, and Dantesque hot lakes. To those back east who saw them on his return to New York, Moran's watercolors of Yellowstone looked as thrillingly alien as the first photos from the moon would a century later. Yet there were some scenes whose scale and grandeur neither a plate negative nor a watercolor could adequately convey, and one of these was the direct view down the chasm of Yellowstone, toward the falls.

"Hayden remembered Moran saying "with a sort of regretful enthusiasm, that these beautiful tints were beyond the reach of human art." What the sketchbook could not encompass, however, memory and imagination perhaps could, and as soon as he got back to New York, Moran ordered an eight- by-fourteen-foot canvas and flung himself into work on the climactic panorama of America's years of Western expansion: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

"Meanwhile, Hayden had been busy lobbying Congress, with the enthusiastic backing of the Northern Pacific Railroad's directors, to set aside Yellowstone as a national park - a museum of American sublimity. To prove its uniqueness, he displayed Moran's sketches and Jackson's photographs; and in March 1871 President Grant signed into law an act of Congress protecting the whole Yellowstone area, thirty-five hundred square miles of it, in perpetuity. This was to do wonders for the Northern Pacific Railroad's cash flow - and, not incidentally, for Moran's. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone became the first American landscape by an American artist ever bought by the American government. It cost $10,000, or about 8o cents per square inch, and it went straight on view in the Capitol, where the effigies of so many flesh-and-blood heroes were to be seen. This, too, was a painting of a hero: the landscape as hero, limbs of rock, belly of water, hair of trees, all done with absorbing virtuosity. It rivaled Church and outdid Bierstadt in offering the panoramic thrill that no watercolor can give, and the density of substance that no photograph could rival. It became a prime symbol of wilderness tourism. Two years later, Moran tried to repeat its success with an even larger canvas, The Chasm of the Colorado, the result of an expedition down the Grand Canyon led by Colonel John Wesley Powell, another surveyor who needed, as he put it, an artist of Moran's stature to paint scenes that were "too vast, too complex, and too grand for verbal description." Moran certainly did his best, but the Canyon defeated him - as it has defeated all landscape painters since; not even he could solve the principal problem of painting it, the lack of any scale that related to the human body and so might allow the viewer to imagine himself on the edge of the scene."

- From Robert Hughes, "American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America"

Further reading on Thomas Moran:

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Thomas Moran Images

1867 Children of the Mountain
1871 The Devil's Slide, Yellowstone
1872 The Devil's Den on Cascade Creek
1872 Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
1872 Hot Springs of Gardiner's River
1873 Excelsior Geyser, Yellowstone Park
1875 Mountain of the Holy Cross
1880 Fort George Island
1892 Smelting Works at Denver
1893 Golden Gateway to the Yellowstone
c. 1893-97 Autumn
1893-1901 Cliffs of the Upper Colorado River
1897 Solitude
1913 A Miracle of Nature

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