Important Art by Thomas Moran
This enormous canvas displays Moran's skill as a colorist, but also shows his ability to combine topography with myth. The composition is divided by a vast V shape, as the Yellowstone River scores the rocky landscape, evoking a strong sense of the primordial. It is picked out in a vibrant blue, which contrasts with the earthy greens, browns and ochres of the surrounding landscape. The river, though dwarfed by the mass of the landscape, asserts its own power as its shape dictates the very composition of the work. Shafts of light pour down opposite sides of the gulf, drawing attention to the rocks' strata and characteristics. Firs and pines extend vertically, drawing the eye heavenwards, while in the lower foreground, a party of Native Americans provide the only witness to this scene of desolate splendor.
Like many of Moran's canvases, the work combines his naturalist's eye for detail with a strong sense of the divine. The artist himself summed up these combined impulses as follows: "[b]y all artists, it has heretofore been deemed next to impossible to make good picture of Strange and Wonderful Scenes in nature; and that the most that could be done with such material was to give topographical or geologic characteristics. But I have always held that the Grandest, Most Beautiful, or Wonderful in Nature, would, in capable hands, make the grandest, most beautiful, or wonderful pictures, and that the business of a great painter should be the representations of great scenes in Nature." The greatness of this scene was enhanced by its scale: at 7-by-12 foot, The Grand Canyon was the largest painting Moran had ever produced, and he affectionately called it his 'big picture'.
When this piece was presented to the public, it provided many with their first view of the national wonders of the Yellowstone. The Grand Canyon has since become such an iconic part of American cultural identity that it is difficult to imagine the effect that its 'discovery' must have had (though of course, the figures in the lower foreground remind us that European settlers were not the first to view it). The work, which took six years to complete, was hailed a masterpiece, and the federal government paid $10,000 for it and hung it in the Capitol. A review at the time, by the poet and editor Richard Watson Gilder, declared it "[t]he most remarkable work of art which has been exhibited in this country for a long time." Its success was instrumental in launching Moran's career in art.
The focus of this work is simultaneously on the rocky solidity of the American landscape and on the void which encompasses it. Literally, the work centers on a vast yawning gulf that sucks in light, life and water, at the bottom of which the tiny Colorado River snakes. Symbolically, The Chasm of the Colorado poses important questions about the nature of the landscape over which the United States had transposed its notions of civilization. The uninhabited scene has an almost apocalyptic atmosphere, suggesting some form of resistance or recalcitrance to the values inscribed in the painter's strokes. The snake in the foreground, meanwhile, adds a tincture of Biblical allegory to the composition.
Following in the tradition of European predecessors such as Casper David Friedrich, Moran is grappling here with the notion of the Sublime: with the idea that a natural landscape might embody qualities of beauty at once awe-inspiring and terrifying to the viewer, because they represented forces impervious to the scales of human existence. In this scene, that feeling is intensified by the complete absence of human life, and by our placement as viewers precipitously high up, almost level with the clouds. The work was in fact painted from this vantage point, at Powell's Plateau, a northwest summit of the Grand Canyon. Despite its equivocal gaze on the wilderness, this work would take on an ironically pivotal role in advertising the region to tourists, and it was reproduced repeatedly in magazines, posters and guidebooks. Like its predecessor, it was also commercially successfully, purchased by Congress for $10,000, to be hung in the Capitol opposite The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.
The work reception was more mixed amongst the American critical community, perhaps more alert to the implicit sense of dread it conveys. Poet and editor Richard Watson Gilder wrote: "[i]t is awful. The spectator longs for rest, repose and comfort...The long vista of the distant table-land suggests a sunny place of refuge from all this chaos and tumult. But for the rest there is only an oppressive wildness that weighs down the senses. You perceive that terror has invaded the sky." Journalist Clarence Cook meanwhile, likened the work to a vision of Dante's inferno. Contemporary responses to the work tend to emphasize its unique value within Moran's oeuvre, as exemplified by Joni Louise Kinsey's summary: "The Chasm of the Colorado is a richly complex and profoundly evocative work of art that requires a comprehensive interpretation of its formal qualities, technical manipulations, and inextricable connection to the social, cultural and philosophical currents of its time. An awareness of its multidimensional meanings promotes a new respect for Moran as an artist of undeniable sensitivity to the visual world and to the world of ideas, elevating the work itself far above the level of simply another grand landscape with national significance."
This work is one of a number presenting scenes from the south shore of Lake Superior, the largest of North America's Great Lakes. Following an approach developed by Claude Lorrain, and later associated with J.M.W Turner, most of the composition is taken up by the vast, low-hanging sky, filled with volcanic reds, oranges and yellows. The sun lights up the water-vapor in the atmosphere as if turning it to fire, a shocking hue reflected in turn on the thick, dark waves below. Emerging from this scene is an archway of rock, framed all around by water and mist. The arch would become an important motif for Moran, who sought to reference classical European art and architecture in his depictions of the strange New World.
The work takes its title from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose writing was in turn inspired by Moran. But the painting primarily pays tribute to Moran's idol JMW Turner, particularly his 1840 work Slave Ship (Slaves Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On). Turner's dynamic and troubling work is similarly afire with reds and oranges, a violent scene at once honoring the awesome power of nature and drawing attention to the evils of the slave trade. Moran produced an engraving of a similar subject in 1873, in which a man appears to be drowning at the base of the arch while a distant ship pitches in a violent sea. But in this later work, Moran's subject is the terrifying vengeance of God rather than the evils of humankind. The curator John Coffey sums up something of the impression of impending doom or cataclysm that it evokes: "Moran uses light to corrode landscape and dissolve it. You feel like the world is slipping away."
In art-historical terms, this is a work that seems at once to look forwards and back. On the one hand, not only is its debt to Turner evident in every brushstroke, but the presence of the arch seems to ground the scene in an earlier, European classical notion of mythological narrative and judgement. As Joni Kinsey explains, "[h]is affinity with such features...reveals that he, like his literary counterparts, was creating American analogies to grand historical landscapes because they alluded to the mysteries of creation." At the same time, Moran's wild seascape alludes in its tonal palette to contemporary developments in North-American Luminism, while its expressive (non-Luminist) brushstrokes evoke, perhaps unwittingly, the emergence of Impressionism in Europe across the preceding decade.