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Thomas Moran - Biography and Legacy

American Landscape Painter

Born: February 12, 1837 - Lancashire, England
Died: August 25, 1926 - Santa Barbara, California

Biography of Thomas Moran

Early Life

Thomas Moran was born on February 12th, 1837 in Bolton, Lancashire, in the English industrial heartland which was also the childhood home of America's pioneer landscape painter Thomas Cole. Born to Mary (née Higson) and Thomas Moran Senior, Moran was one of seven children. He came from a line of handloom weavers, whose skills were made redundant with the invention of power looms.

Moran's early years were a time of financial stress for his family. According to his biographer Thurman Wilkins, Moran's father wanted a future for his children "free of the shackles of British class distinction and the starvation of being a handloom weaver". Enticed by the promise and economic opportunity of the new world, in 1844 he moved the family to America. The crossing made an impression on the seven-year-old Moran, and he spent hours watching the waves, from which he later produced sketches and paintings of the ocean.

The family moved first to Baltimore then settled in Kensington, a suburb of Philadelphia, where they found themselves at the center of a community of immigrant textile workers. Even as a child, Moran was drawn to art, and would regularly visit galleries and exhibitions, gaining an appreciation for a wide range of painting styles.

Early Training and Work

By the age of 16, according to his biographer, Moran had become a "prepossessing youth with gray-blue eyes, high forehead and light brown hair". He began an apprenticeship at the Philadelphia engraving firm Scattergood and Telfer, thus becoming one of a number of American landscape painters, including Asher B. Durand, John F. Kensett, John William Casilear and George Inness, who began their professional life as engravers.

According to Wilkins, "Moran filled his free daylight hours with painting in watercolors and his evenings with drawing by gaslight in black and white, when working in color was less feasible. Absorbed in a practice that would develop into a regular pattern, he began to reach the shop later in the mornings and to leave earlier in the afternoons." This early informal training would prove invaluable to him, and Moran remained largely self-taught throughout his life.

After three years at Scattergood and Telfer, he abandoned his apprenticeship. He was drawn to the studio of his older brother Edward, already on his way to becoming a respected marine painter. Here, Moran met the well-known Philadelphia painter James Hamilton, the man dubbed the "American Turner", who would became his mentor.

According to Wilkins, "Moran was never avant-garde. Coming to maturity at a time when British tradition was still a force in American art, he trained, indeed steeped himself in that tradition." Moran was particularly fascinated by the work of J.M.W. Turner, and spent years studying reproductions of his work. In 1861 he travelled with his brother to London, where they spent months studying and copying Turner's canvases at the National Gallery.

Moran was lucky enough to come to maturity at a time when Romantic landscape painting had become a potentially lucrative venture. But he was also very hardworking. As a young man he would work 13 hours a day in his studio, a routine he would maintain throughout his life. Inspired by English Romanticism, Moran chose to ignore most contemporary developments in European Modernism, such as the birth of Impressionism during the 1860. He was, however, inspired by the work of the English Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a cousin of the European Symbolist movement. He was also influenced by the Victorian art critic John Ruskin, particularly by his concept of "truth to nature", which proposed that the artist had a fundamental role connecting nature and society.

In 1857 Moran met Mary Nimmo, who later became his wife. After their marriage in 1863, the Scottish-born Nimmo began teaching herself to sketch and paint, and became a skillful artist in her own right. Their son Paul was born in 1864, followed by two daughters, Mary and Ruth. The couple were happy and well-matched, as their daughter Ruth recalled: "[i]n their home there was always music and laughter. Working through the evening as well as most of the day, they still had time for their friends." The family spent some time in France, but Moran was unimpressed with the landscape painting he found there, in spite of the country's rich artistic heritage. He would later state: "French art, in my opinion, scarcely rises to the dignity of the landscape." They also travelled through Italy and Switzerland, before returning to America, where they settled in New Jersey.

Mature Period

Portrait of Thomas Moran by Napoleon Sarony, (c. 1890-96)

Moran was a member of the Hudson River School, a group consisting of several generations of American landscape painters who worked between 1825 and around 1870. The name was applied retrospectively, and referred mainly to the distinct subject-matter and aesthetics of a particular group rather than their confinement to one geographical location. That said, the school's early leaders, such as Thomas Doughty, Asher Durand, and, above all, Thomas Cole, were best known for representing the landscapes of the Hudson River Valley in upstate New York. The school grew largely out of the European Romantic movement, but it also had a strongly nationalistic bent, focusing on the sublime beauty of the American wilderness. Besides becoming an important painter associated with the "second generation" of the School, Moran enjoyed a successful career as an illustrator. Between 1870 and 1885 he is thought to have produced more than a thousand published commercial images and engravings, primarily to fund his frequent trips into the wilderness.

Moran's inquisitive and adventurous nature increasingly led him westwards, away from the spiritual home of the Hudson River School, for which reason he is also remembered, along with Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill, and William Keith, as a member of the so-called Rocky Mountain School. The painters of this school applied the luminous color palette and European Romantic aesthetics of the Hudson River School to the landscapes of the American West.

His emergence as one of the leading exponents of this school was partly fortuitous. In 1870, while still in his early thirties, Moran was asked by Scribner's Magazine to rework sketches of Yellowstone National Park made by a member of an expedition party. Moran was so inspired by the prospect that he borrowed the necessary funds to make the trip himself. Though he had never previously ridden a horse or spent a night under the stars, the following year he spent forty days traveling through Yellowstone with the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, as part of the Ferdinand Hayden survey. He documented over 30 sites, and legend has it that he became so thin that he had to travel with a cushion on his saddle to protect his bony bottom.

He kept a detailed diary during his trip, which, though not creatively inspired, reveals his sense of exhilaration and freedom: "[a]fter descending to the shore of the lake, some of the party fished in it and caught a few of the finest trout that I have yet seen...Made a large fire and cooked our supper of black tailed deer meat, which I enjoyed hugely after riding and nearly all day. For the first time in my life I slept out in the open air during the night. It rained a little but not enough to wet us to any extent." The Yellowstone trip marked a turning point in Moran's career. Exploratory trips across the American continent would shape the rest of his working life. He became so attached to the West that he was known as Thomas "Yellowstone" Moran.

Two years later Moran made his first trip to the Grand Canyon, with John Wesley Powell's government survey. The following year he explored the Mountain of the Holy Cross, a prominent summit in the northern Sawatch Range of the Rocky Mountains that had only been officially "discovered" the previous year. The mountain took its name from the cruciform shape of the snow-patch on its rocky face. He would use sketches and watercolors created en route to work from later in his studio. The oil paintings produced from these trips are now thought of as archetypes of American Landscape paintings.

Once his status allowed him to do so, Moran began to visit the English critic John Ruskin, whose writing had greatly influenced him, to show him his work. In a profile of the artist in The American Magazine in 1913, it was reported that "[w]hen Thomas Moran visited John Ruskin, that great but eccentric critic, and showed him a sketch of the 'Bad Lands' of Utah, Ruskin exclaimed, 'What a horrible place to live in!' 'Oh', replied Moran, with a twinkle in his eye, 'we do not live there. Our country is so vast that we keep such places for scenic purposes only'." The magazine also reported that when Moran showed him a sketch of the Grand Canyon, he had to convince the critic it was not the work of Turner.

In 1882, Moran designed and built his family home in the Hamptons, without the help of an architect. The couple covered the walls with art and curiosities they had collected from their travels. The house has been preserved, and stands now as a tribute to the couple's work. The building, on East Hampton's Main Street, was nearly destroyed by the 2012 Hurricane Sandy, but has since been repaired and restored.

The art historian Joni Kinsey states, "[b]y the end of the nineteenth century, his landscape views, especially those of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, were recognized as the definitive treatments of those natural wonders. His work, then as now, was seen as both accurate and eloquent, with the sense of place conveyed as much by its spirit as by its appearance". Moran's work made him rich, and he was able to travel extensively throughout the landscape that captured his imagination right up until the end of his life.

Late Period

Portrait of Thomas Moran in his seventies from <i>The American</i> Magazine

Moran's love affair with the art of Turner took him across the world during the later decades of his career, as he followed the path taken by his idol. In 1883 he visited Mexico, and spent time touring the Grand Canyon and New Mexico. In 1899, Moran was devastated by the death Mary at the age of 47. She had contracted typhoid fever after nursing her daughter Ruth through the disease. Two weeks later he left the family home to lead an itinerant life for the following 17 years. He settled in Santa Barbara in the early 1920s with Ruth, remaining there for the rest of his life. He made his final journey to Yellowstone in the 1920s, at the age of 87.

Moran worked right up the end of his life, creating more than 1500 oil paintings and 800 watercolors across the course of his career. He died in 1926 at the age of 89 in Santa Barbara, California, and was memorialized as both the "the last of America's romantic painters" and the "Dean of American Landscape Painters." His daughter Ruth described him as "a romantic figure, in a not very romantic period. He was quick-witted, full of humor, kind and generous; but quick-tempered, also, and a good fighter for any cause that he might take up." The artist's legacy lives on at his East Hampton home, the Thomas and Mary Nimmo Moran Studio, while Mount Moran in the Grand Teton National Park was named in his honor.

The Legacy of Thomas Moran

Thomas Moran's landscape hangs in the White House's Oval Office, as seen here on the right of former President Obama.

Like his predecessors Thomas Cole and Asher B. Durand, Moran was steeped in the traditions of European Romantic painting, but he also believed that American art needed to find its own, native subject-matter. Believing that artists owed it to the American wilderness to depict its beauty for posterity, his work became integral to the protection of the areas he loved. His paintings of Yellowstone, for example, proved essential in convincing the United States Congress to establish the area as a National Park.

In artistic terms, Moran's significance perhaps resides in his work's capacity to outlive the trends that inspired it. The artist Arthur Millier once described Moran as "an 'old master' not incomparable with Turner and Claude Lorrain", whose work "did not 'date' in quite the same manner as, for instance, Albert Bierstadt. There was an imaginative element in his work that was able to transcend a style of painting itself successively outmoded by the Barbizon, Impressionist, and finally the hydra-headed Post-Impressionist importations."

As regards specific threads of influence, Moran's work notably went on to inspire members of Group f/64 and especially Ansel Adams. The most important American landscape photographer of the twentieth century, Adams was a nature-lover like Moran, and his work has taken on an equally integral role in campaigns to conserve the American landscape.

But perhaps above all else, Moran's significance lies in the capacity of his work to influence popular consciousness, and the American nation's sense of itself. As the critic Joni Kinsey states, "[i]n making remote and mysterious regions accessible to the American public through paintings, drawings and illustrations, he influenced an entire generation's understanding of its country. Thomas Moran provided his viewers with a visual sense of place, thus contributing to making the West an indelible part of the American consciousness." For writer Robert Allerton Parker, Moran's "expression has passed into our very culture. Perhaps more than any other American painter of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Thomas Moran compelled the American people to appreciate the beauty of its own continent."

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas

"Thomas Moran Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Greg Thomas
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First published on 20 May 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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