Thomas Moran

Shoshone Falls on the Snake River

Music to accompany this page:
Go West, by The Pet Shop Boys

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Thomas Moran was born on February 12, 1837 in Bolton, England. He moved to Kensington, Pennsylvania in 1844, after his father, a hand-loom weaver, was replaced by machine during the Industrial Revolution. After completing his primary education, Thomas entered an apprenticeship with an engraving firm. It wasn't soon after, that he terminated the apprenticeship to join his brother Edward, and aspiring artist, in his studio.

Moran began to study informally under several painters in the Philadelphia area. In the early 1860's, his brother encouraged Thomas to display his paintings. Often they would take excursions to the Pennsylvanian forests on sketching trips. Moran would return to the studio and reproduce the fascinating landscapes, with extraordinary detail, such at The Autumnal Woods.

At about this time, Moran became vividly interested in the works of J.M.W. Turner, an English landscape artist. Joined by his brother, he traveled back to England in 1862 to following the sketching route used by Turner along the England coastline.

In 1866, Moran once again returned to Europe to continue his study of the European masters, and to exhibit some of his own major early work, Children of the Mountain, in the Exposition Universelle in Paris. This painting was used four years later to help finance his first western trip, and ultimately, change the course of his career.

In 1871, Thomas was requested by Scribner's Magazine, to rework some sketches that had been submitted, for an upcoming article Titled "The Wonders of Yellowstone." This would be the first extensive description of the Yellowstone landscape, to be published in the East. Moran quickly arranged to join a government-sponsored survey of Yellowstone, that would be led by Ferdinand V. Hayden, a geologist that was being sent to measure and map the area. Moran rapidly adapted to life on the trail, and on July 11, 1871 he wrote:
Passed over debris of a great land slide, where the whole face of the mountain had fallen down at some time, laying bare a great cliff some 500 feet high. The view of the lake, as we approached it, was very beautiful. . . The Mountains surrounding it are about 11,000 feet high. . . having snow still upon them. . . After descending to the shore of the lake, some of the party fished in it & caught a few of the finest trout that I have ever seen. After a rest. . . all the party started back for camp excepting Jackson, Dixon & myself, we having concluded to remain over until the next day for the purpose of photographing & sketching in the vicinity. Made a large fire & cooked our supper of black tailed deer meat. . . During the night it rained a little but not enough to wet us to any extent. Got up early enough in the morning to get our breakfast, & commence photographing as soon as the sun rose.

The Grand Canyon of the YellowstoneDuring the trip, he completed dozens of watercolor studies. These were the first color images of Yellowstone ever seen in the East, and served as the basis for his paintings. He worked closely with the expedition photographer, William Henry Jackson, and produced water color paintings of the waterfalls, geysers, and hot springs of Yellowstone, including The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Soon after Moran returned east, Hayden and others, began promoting the idea that Yellowstone should be protected and preserved as a national park. Since none of the members of Congress had seen Yellowstone, Hayden and his colleagues brought Moran's watercolors, along with the photographs taken by Jackson, to Capitol Hill. It was reported that these played a decisive role in the establishment of Yellowstone as the first national park in March 1872.

Congress later appropriated $10,000 for the purchase of Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The seven by twelve foot painting offers 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 Hayden, and the artist himself. Chasm of the ColoradoThis purchase was followed by a second one, two years later, of a landscape titled Chasm of the Colorado, from Moran's 1873 trip to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado River with John Wesley Powell.

Moran's third great western landscape was completed in 1875. This time the subject matter was a famous Colorado peak, renown for a cross of snow on its side. Moran approached the endeavor with the same liberty he had seen exhibited by Turner, during his trek through England. Mountain of the Holy CrossThe finished landscape, Mountain of the Holy Cross, included a waterfall in the foreground that Moran invented, in his attempt to capture the true impression of the scene.

By 1876, Thomas Moran had established himself as one of the major landscape painters of his day. Moran's medium of choice was watercolor, and he would take watercolor sketches from the field, and use them as the basis for studio variations. One series of images centered around the Great Springs of the Fire Hole River. Clearly visible underneath watercolored brushstrokes of color across the upper portion and the lower left portion of the painting, are the pencil sketchings and notes enter by Moran while developing the picture. Louis Prang published this study of the Great Springs in a color portfolio, which brought rave reviews. For the first time, both Yellowstone and Thomas Moran became available to a wider audience, that had never had the opportunity to view and appreciate either of these two wonders.
Mouse over image at right to see detail of field notes

Thomas Moran was a man with a broad spectrum of interests, and was never at a lost for inspiration. While the popularity of his paintings of the West soared, Moran worked on other subjects that had peaked his creative instincts, including coastal life, pastoral settings, urban and industrial views and historical scenes.

Thomas Moran, continued...

Grand Canyon


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