By: Alex Nguyen
Course: HONR 338P/ARTH 489E
Title: American Landscapes
Instructor: Professor Sally Promey
Moran's three famous oil on canvas paintings were more than just realistic representations of the landscape - they provided spiritual and inspirational substance for those venturing to the West. They also showed vividly the awesome riches - scenic and material - of the West. So profound are his works that could be considered a national icon of the time.
He was best known for his precise put idealized paintings of nature, and his rich use of colors. Moran's styles and techniques didn't come totally from within, but was greatly influenced by a number of prominent artists at the time, including Frederic Church, Albert Bierstadt, James Hamilton, and James Turner.
Let's take a brief look at the earlier days of his life, see how his travel to the West lead to
his magnificent Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, study the painting in detail, discuss the artists
who influenced Moran's paintings the most, and take a look at the later days of his life.
The impact of this trip on Moran was expressed by his daughter, Ruth: "Every artist of genius experiences during his life a great spiritual revelation and upheaval. This revelation came to Thomas Moran as he journeyed on horseback through an almost unbelievable wilderness. To him, it was all grandeur, beauty, color and light - nothing of man at all, but nature, virgin, unspoiled and lovely. In the Yellowstone country he found fairy-like color and form that his dreams could not rival."
Color was indeed the scene's most striking feature - so brilliant and delicate that Moran said that the beautiful tints were beyond the reach of human art. He would sit at a spot now known as "Artist Point" and study the colors of the scene - memorizing every nuance, and recording color codes on his sketches. Says Moran,
"I have wandered over a good part of the territories and have seen much of the varied scenery of the Far West, but that of the Yellowstone retains its hold upon my imagination with a vividness as of yesterday... The impression then made upon me by the stupendous and remarkable manifestations of nature's forces will remain with me as long as memory lasts."
The restlessness of the period and drive towards exploration of the West led many major
American artists to expatriate, and led Moran to wander also. However, Moran was not
interested in the West because of the exciting life associated with that of a frontiersman, but
because he wanted to depict the West in his works as a vast, romantic, ideal land of haunting
Following The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone in 1872, Moran had a growing interest in the effect of atmosphere and light upon color which was inspired in part by artists whose styles Moran studied. He returned to Yellowstone to experiment with producing images of the Grand Canyon in fog, mist, and after the rain. About twenty years after the first Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Moran spent eight years on the same subject, this time with diffuse brushwork, softer atmosphere, and broader composition. Unlike the first one, which possessed a theme of scientific discovery, his later work represents a romantic symbol of the Edenic American wilderness. Two decades since its first discovery, the more developed nation at this time looked upon the West with nostalgia.
Moran's 1893 Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with the absence of people and human-
interaction, shows a nostalgic image of the Yellowstone before its discovery by Americans - one
which will never be seen again.
Initially, the immense waterfall placed in the center and the bright yellow hills at the top overpower everything else, and keep the viewer's eyes jumping back and forth between these two areas. However, Moran adds a wide variety in this painting - some of the trees are full with leaves and some are bare; some of the hilltops are sharp and pointy, while others are blunt. This variety, and the presence of the minute details, tend to make the viewer's eyes wander all over the painting. The bright orange colors on the rocks near at lower right, and the formation of a "V" or an arrow by the rocks attracts the viewer to the lower right. The details of the rocks and trees that Moran places on the left foreground invite the viewer to the lower left of the painting.
Moran uses a variety of tools to accomplish this painting. He used knives to paint the rough sides of the rocks, and long, sweeping strokes with a course brush to create the sloping sides of the canyon. His meticulous attention to detail can be seen in the details of the fine leaves and light areas of the tree branches, where he uses a very thin brush.
Near the top of the painting, horizontal lines define the top, relatively flat surface of the canyon. The lines on the top of the painting seem to indicate that the canyon is rather enclosed within the painting, with a portion of the canyon extending beyond the top portion of the left and right sides of the painting, curving around, returning back to the painting at the lower portion of the left and right sides, and establishing the top surface of the canyon in the bottom center, where the view seems to be located.
Down the left and right sides of the canyon, the lines defining the tops of the hills seem to follow a rhythmic pattern, as hills peak and crest. However, the multiple diagonal lines with different slopes that define the hills, and the vertical lines that define trees also seem to follow a jarring pattern. Clear and assertive lines define the sharp edges of the distant hills and the rocks close to the viewer and located at the bottom of the painting.
The clarity and contrast of the real painting allows the viewer to precisely discern the location of the light source. The consistent arrangement of the tree shadows lying to the right, and bright yellow areas along the sides of the canyon strongly suggest that the source of light is from above and to the left.
Overall, the highly organized, varied painting appears meticulously calculated and picture-
like. The colors, the dark ominous cloud over the waterfall, and the absence of humans indicate a
feeling of solitude and isolation. The painting displays only nature - a large canyon in it's virgin
state that is "untouched" by humans.
Moran is often both liked and disliked for the same, reason: People like his paintings because they are accurate portrayals of natural beauty and wonder; Artists who look for art and are not well educated or are perceptive dismiss artists like Moran precisely because they do paint in a "visually rational manner."
Like Moran, Church also painted large, extravagant paintings, such as The Heart of the Andes in 1859. "[Church's] painting was both grandiose and meticulous, thus effecting a useful compromise between a desire for expansive expression and a worship of nature's process." Church's grand paintings and attention to detail is repeated in Moran's series of paintings - the two Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, and The Chasm of the Colorado.
With his brother John, who was a famous photographer, and close friend, traveling companion, and photographer William Henry Jackson, Moran was surrounded with photography. He himself had an interest in photography, and used photographs of the landscapes as a way to measure the accuracy of his paintings. Moran painted in a studio using field sketches, watercolors, and diagrams with color notations, and photographs.
"After two years at engraving, he [Moran] left it to begin the practice of Art without a master, and had the skill to succeed. He picked up instruction from the painters of his acquaintance in Philadelphia; especially from James Hamilton, who well suited the boy's imaginative temperament."
"... he owed, more than to any other artist, the direction and character that afterward marked his works."
It is very likely that the visionary, romantic approach of Moran must have been influenced in part by Hamilton.
To learn Turner's technical processes, Moran carefully copied two or three of his oil paintings, and a larger number of his water color paintings. Moran duplicated Turner's paintings with such precision that his work was often mistaken for Turner's. Moran studied Turner's water colors and caught the qualities of his idol's style so well that one of his own studies, a view of Arundel Castle, was mistaken in London for a sketch by Turner. In another instance, Moran, at this time a reputable authority on Turner, was asked to authenticate a small landscape painting which art collector Thomas Nast had framed with Turner's name inscribed on it. Nast had purchased the painting from a reputable dealer, and connoisseurs had called the painting genuine. But when looking at the painting, Moran felt a "tantalizing sense of familiarity." After checking the back of the painting for markings, he discovered that he himself created the painting in 1858, which he took to London three years later. Moran was quick to admit that Turner's styles had greatly influenced him, and that this influence could be readily observed in his work, especially in his use of vivid, bright colors. This incident underscored the notion that Moran could be called "the American Turner."
After Moran's death, a critic wrote, "In studying Turner he grasped the essential of his interpretation of the outdoor world, and the beautiful luminous passages in his work flow with limpid directions from their source in Turner's sunlight." This is certainly evident in the extensive "experiments" of sunlight, atmosphere, and enhanced colors of the great outdoors of the Yellowstone National Park in The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1893-1901).
Moran, however, did not acknowledge as much of Turner's contribution to his styles as critics did - he thought that Turner just served to reveal nature to him. He felt that Turner "would falsify the color of any object in his picture in order to produce what he considered to be a harmonious hole." Although Moran did handle his colors similar to the way that Turner did in his paintings, Moran claimed that he never did so much as to overwhelm its individual character.
About Turner, Moran commented, "Turner is a great artist, but he is not understood, because both painters and the public look upon his pictures as transcriptions of Nature... All that he asked of a scene was simply how good a medium it was for making a picture; he cared nothing for the scene itself. Literally speaking his landscapes are false." Although Moran's paintings were usually based upon actual scenes, he tends to idealize the landscape rather than portray them as they are in reality, and he felt that topography in art was valueless. Moran says,
"I place no value upon literal transcripts from nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization. Of course, all art must come through nature or naturalism, but I believe that a place, as a place, has no value in itself for the artist only so far as it furnishes the material from which to construct a picture."
"Topography in art is valueless... while I desired to tell truly of Nature, I did not wish to realize the scene [The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone] literally, but to preserve and to convey its true impression."
Moran was rather fond of Turner. Around 1870 to 1890, Moran, after having copied
some of Turner's paintings, made a series of humorous paintings hung on the walls of the parlor
of the Salmagundi Club in New York City for a special reception given in 1890 for a member of
the club. One of the pieces was an imitation of Turner, done in oil on a round panel, and bore the
inscription, "Bought by an American millionaire from a needy English Duke for $291,000.75.
Painted by Jim Jam M. W. Turner."
(Can be reached by connecting to the "National Museum of American Art Home Page":
[http://www.nmaa.si.edu] and selecting "...portraits of some of your favorite American
__________. "National Museum of American Art Home Page." [http://www.nmaa.si.edu]. Sept. 11, 1995
__________. "NMAA MESL project." [http://www.nmaa.si.edu/deptdir/pubsub/mesl.html]
__________. "Thomas Moran Landscapes." National Museum of American Arts. 1995. (Handout.)
Clark, Carol, Thomas Moran's watercolors of the American West. Austin and London : University of Texas Press, 1981.
Fern, Thomas S. The Drawings and Watercolors of Thomas Moran. Notre Dame: Art Gallery, University of Notre Dame, c1976.
Fryxell, Fritiof. "Thomas Moran, Explorer in Search of Beauty." in Thomas Moran, Explorer in Search of Beauty. East Hampton, Long Island, New York: East Hampton Free Library, 1958.
Gerdts, William H. Thomas Moran, 1837-1926. Riverside: University of California, c1963.
Taylor, Joshua C. The Fine Arts in America. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Wilkins, Thurman, Thomas Moran, Artist of the Mountains. Norman: University of Oklahoma