Progression of Art
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
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.
Oil on canvas mounted on aluminum - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
The Chasm of the Colorado
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."
Oil on canvas mounted on aluminum - Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC
Fiercely the Red Sun Descending Burned His Way Along the Heavens
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.
Oil on canvas - North Carolina Museum of Art
The Mountain of the Holy Cross
In this work depicting the glacial cruciforms beyond Gray's Peak in the Rocky Mountains, the imagined viewer is situated at the bottom of a mountain river whose strength and power is referenced in the tree trunks left vertical or upended upstream, felled by the water's currents. The lower two thirds of the canvas are dark, gloomy and damp, taken up by the zig-zagging valley, rocks and trees. The movement of the river leads the eye up to the small rock face in the center top, which provides the symbolic crux of the work. Shrouded by mist and snow, it clearly shows the geological feature from which the work takes its name. Two cleaves in the rock have left an enormous cruciform shape, filled with the snow and ice of glacial deposit.
The Mountain of the Holy Cross was an important landmark for pioneering settlers, unknown to topographical study until 1873, when the explorer and geologist Ferdinand Hayden published photographs of the area. One of Moran's more difficult expeditions, reaching the viewing plateau from which this work was created meant ascending 12,000 feet of treacherous and slippery mountainside on the Rockies' Sawatch Range. Witnesses had recounted that the cross would disappear on their approach, and the strangeness of this geographical formation added to its mystery and allure. Moran meant the work to be a nationalistic image, as he projected Christian doctrine onto this natural scene; the canvas became Moran's chief contribution to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876.
Moran wanted this work to form a triptych with The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and The Chasm of the Colorado but due to a disagreement at Congress, the three have never been hung together. It did however help to promote the area's popularity, and after the turn of the century the Mountain of the Holy Cross became a popular pilgrimage site, and an important destination for health tourism. Moran's work also inspired poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write an elegy to his late wife entitled A Cross of Snow.
Oil on canvas - Museum of the American West, Autry National Center, Los Angeles, California
The Three Tetons
Once again, Moran's subject is the splendor of the Rocky Mountains, specifically the distinctive Three Tetons, the principle summits of the Wyoming Range. Despite the distant presence of the jagged peaks, however, the bed of grasses and prairie wildflowers in the foreground contributes to a lighter, more 'pastoral' mood than is achieved in many of his previous works. This is enhanced by the presence of roaming cattle, and a small encampment: here is a Moran landscape which, for once, seems fit for human habitation. Thus, while the work cannot exactly be called picturesque, it certainly strikes a less foreboding note than its predecessors. The viewer's eye is gradually drawn upwards to the snow-capped mountains in the mid- and background, but the white-cloudy sky above seems to subdue the impression of sublimity and terror which they might otherwise evoke.
Between August 21 and August 29, 1879, Moran attempted to cross the Snake River Valley running across Idaho and Wyoming, escorted by Captain Augustus Bainbridge along with a group of soldiers and Native American scouts. Though the expedition was ultimately unsuccessful, it afforded Moran memorable glimpses of the Tetons, which, as he wrote in his diary at the time, "loomed up grandly against the sky. From this point it is perhaps the finest pictorial range in the United States or even N. America." Later the same day he wrote: "we made sketches of the Teton Range but the distance, 20 miles, is rather too far to distinguish the details, especially as it is very smoky from fires in the mountains on each side of the peaks." Moran would never make it to the view the Tetons up close, though the pages from his diary which might explain why the mission was aborted have been mysteriously removed. This may explain why this work, measuring just 50 by 64 cm, strikes such a subdued and peaceful tone as compared to those works which depict the landmarks of the North-American wilderness close up.
Despite their diminutive scale, Moran's images of the Tetons captured the public and critical imagination. Notably, they caught the attention of the influential British art critic John Ruskin, who said of Moran: "[n]or are there any descriptions of the Valley of Diamonds, or the Lake of the Black Islands, in the 'Arabian Nights,' anything like so wonderful as the scenes of California and the Rocky Mountains which you may ... see represented with most sincere and passionate enthusiasm by the American landscape painter, Mr Thomas Moran." A mountain in the Teton Range is named Mount Moran in the painter's honor.
Oil on board - The Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa
Grand Canyon (From Hermit Rim Road)
If Moran's earlier canvases depicting the Grand Canyon convey a sense of distance and scale, this work might be said to express a sense of depth. Divided diagonally from the top right to the bottom left, it features an array of greens and grays in the foreground, the pines and rocks of the area represented - for the most part - with Moran's famous scientific accuracy. In the middle of the canvas, however, the landscape drops away, revealing the vast depths of the Canyon in a manner which is almost literally vertiginous. The left diagonal section of the work is rendered in blues, purples and grays, as if the sky itself were leaching into the Canyon, through which the distant Colorado River snakes.
The Grand Canyon was Moran's preeminent subject-matter, one he was drawn to again and again throughout his career. "Its tremendous architecture", he wrote, "fills one with wonder and admiration, and its color, forms and atmosphere are so ravishingly beautiful that, however well-traveled one may be, a new world is opened to him when he gazes into the Grand Canyon of Arizona." Moran was also fascinated by the indigenous flora of the area, which he described as "weird in the extreme". Some of the trees in the foreground of this work have particular significance, however. In this and other works he would add European trees and foliage to his scenes, many of them based on his travels around Italy, in an attempt to synthesize the landscapes of the old and new worlds. As Joni Kinsey notes, "[i]t was in the monumental vistas of the West that the United States could rival the great artistic subjects and achievements of the Old World, and it was through these scenes that America could claim distinction and even superiority to them."
This work, created as Moran approached the final decade of his life, sums up many of his most notable achievements as a draftsman. The early-twentieth-century critic Wolfgang Born lauded his mastery of the "panoramic style", noting that "[h]is feeling is akin to [that of] men who covered the ceiling of Baroque churches with illusionistic frescoes - only they raised their eyes to the heights of the sky, whereas Moran, placing his easel on a choice observation point, looked down into the crevices of the earth." More recently, the art historian Alexis Drahos has described Moran as the last great nineteenth-century American painter to depict the landscape with a scientist's eye for detail: "[h]is vast landscapes are imbued with Earth science, just like those of his forerunners Thomas Cole and Edwin Church. While continuing a great tradition into the final years of the 19th Century, he also brought about its closure."
Oil on canvas - The Santa Fe Collection of Southwestern Art, Chicago