OCTOBER 13, 1997
Essayist Richard Rodriguez has some thoughts about a painter of the American West.
RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: No landscape has moved and troubled us as much as a landscape of the American West. Here is an awesome place that encourages our famous love of solitude and individualism, but here is a terrible place that dwarfs human scale and frightens us. In the 19th century, when most Americans lived in crowded brick cities well to the East of the Mississippi no painter gave Americans a better preview of the West than Thomas Moran. Recently an exhibition of Moran's work opened at the National Gallery of Art.
Though his paintings are of landscapes far from here it is appropriate that this first major retrospective would end up in Washington, D.C.. In the summer of 1871, Thomas Moran traveled to Wyoming. These water colors from that trip were subsequently seen by members of Congress and were influential in a congressional vote to make Yellowstone our first national park. Shortly thereafter, the federal government purchased Moran's gargantuan Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the first landscape to hang in the capitol. Moran was a child of the industrial age. He was born near Manchester, England, in 1837, in a factory town of polluted water and hovering smoke. His father lost his job to a machine. The family moved to the United States, settling in Philadelphia. But the terrible memory of the clanking, banging machines haunted Moran. If some of his most interesting paintings are of industrial America--this view of the inspiring New York skyline, for example--Moran was driven to landscape, to Lake Superior, to Virginia swamps, finally to the great new American West.
Though we of the late 20th century have seen much of Moran's West through the lense of cinemascope and though we can fly over Yellowstone and take a tram through Yosemite, the same question troubles us that must have troubled Thomas Moran. How shall we ever live in a place that so attracts and repels us? For generations Americans have loved and feared the West simultaneously, admired and wanted to control its wildness both. We dig a swimming pool in the terrible desert. We plant a rose garden outside our cabin in the forest. Oh, we say we love our national parks, those great preserves of untamed nature, but who would visit them if we couldn't get there on the interstate? Already, when Thomas Moran painted the Green River Valley, he was painting a lie. Green River was the western terminus of the Union Pacific Railroad. Moran found wooden, ramshackle town, saloons, a church, a schoolhouse. He ignored reality and painted this wilderness to astonish urban Americans. There is something wonderful about the scale of this three monumental paintings. It's not hard to imagine the impact they must have made on Americans in petticoats or top hats. We dismiss such oversized paintings as 19th century art, and though artists of our own age still struggle with the implications of the West, how literally to capture it?
The artist, Christo, for example, a few years ago planted rows of umbrellas on the side of a California hillside to give wilderness order. The truth is that the western landscape, nature this blatant, still bewilders the artist. What can a painter do when sunsets in Wyoming really do like bad motel art? Thomas Moran was both a visionary, influenced by British and German romanticism, and a very shrewd, very American self-promoter. He was in love with Western wilderness but his principal patron was the Santa Fe Railroad, for which he designed calendars and ads that lured Easterners West. There survives a photograph of him late in his life, a gaunt mystic in a railroad station. He was in his contradictions like the rest of us who drive in our air-conditioned automobiles through the grand canyon. We get out of our cars to stand, awed by a nature that is oblivious of our human designs, and then we drive away.
I'm Richard Rodriguez.