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The American Experience

People & Events
Thomas Moran (1837 - 1926)

Thomas Moran Towards the end of his life, the painter Thomas Moran wrote: "It has often occurred to me as a curious and anomalous fact, that American artists are prone to seek the subjects for their art in foreign lands, to the almost entire exclusion of their own.... That there is a nationalism in art needs no proof. It is bred from a knowledge of and sympathy with [one's own] surroundings and no foreigner can imbue himself with a spirit of a country not his own. Therefore he should paint his own land...." As a young man, Moran did just what he admonished other artists for doing: he went to Europe to study painting and find inspiration. But at the end of his prolific career he was more closely associated with the landscapes of the American West than almost any other painter.

Moran first achieved national recognition for the work he created while accompanying a geological and geographic survey headed by Ferdinand V. Hayden. In the late 19th century, the U.S. government made the surveying of Western territory an integral part of its domestic policy. Washington wanted to investigate the West with a view to promoting settlement and commerce and exploiting natural resources. From 1867-1879, the Federal government supported four Great Surveys, each extremely ambitious in scope; each expected to provide a comprehensive written report, accompanied by visual materials. Hayden's own instructions from the Secretary of the Interior were "to secure as full materials as possible for the illustration of your final report, such as sketches, photographs, etc."

Hayden hired Moran in 1871, during the fifth year of his survey, to help provide the visual documentation Congress required. When Moran joined the team it was on its way to Yellowstone. The work the artist created on the trip would ultimately help transform the region from a hellish place into one of awesome beauty in the public's imagination. Additionally, as a "Harper's Weekly" article from the time indicated, his initial sketches almost certainly played a role in convincing Congress that the region should be turned into a National Park. "A Bill of importance has passed the House of Representatives," stated the March 1872 story, "and [it] will undoubtedly become a law.... Those who had been so fortunate as to see the original sketches by the artists who accompanied Dr. Hayden know how very beautiful as well as interesting the phenomena of the region are." Shortly after Yellowstone was named the first National Park of the United States, Moran's huge seven-by-twelve foot painting "The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone" was unveiled. Congress paid $10,000 for the oil in 1872 and hung it in the Capitol. This rich and powerful painting catapulted Moran to national prominence.

Two years later, Congress paid $10,000 for another Moran painting and hung it opposite the first. This equally massive work titled "The Chasm of the Colorado" was the result of a trip Moran took with another of the Great Surveys. This one was led by former U.S. Army Major and college professor, John Wesley Powell. Moran joined the expedition in the summer of 1873, traveling first with Powell from Salt Lake City to an area that is now known as Zion National Park. A month later he caught his first glimpse of the Grand Canyon, a view that made a great impression on him. "The whole gorge for miles lay beneath us and it was by far the most awfully grand and impressive scene that I have ever yet seen," he wrote to his wife. "A suppressed sort of roar comes up constantly from the chasm but with that exception everything impresses you with an awful stillness."

"The Chasm of the Colorado" was just one of many artistic works that Moran produced as a result of his travels with Powell. He made more than two dozen wood engravings to accompany a three-part adventure article Powell wrote for the magazine "Scribner's Monthly." More than thirty pieces of Moran's artwork also illustrated Powell's 1875 cumulative expedition report. Just as Moran's work had increased the popularity of Yellowstone, so it gradually promoted a nationwide interest in the Grand Canyon. For Moran, the mighty Canyon was until the end of his life a great source of inspiration. Thirty years after first catching a glimpse of it, he would write, "Of all places on earth the great canyon of Arizona is the most inspiring in its pictorial possibilities." The artist would return to the region almost every year for the last 25 years of his life and produced hundreds of different representations of its landscapes.

Moran completed the last of his three great oil paintings, "Mountain of the Holy Cross" in 1875. By choosing to accompany Powell in the summer of 1873, Moran missed out on being one of the men on Hayden's team to first "discover" the Peak in the summer of 1873. Moran visited the mountain the following summer. Hidden deep in the Colorado Rockies, it was extremely difficult to reach, which in part explains why Moran made very few sketches of the area. He also discovered that there was only one good vantage point from which to view the snow-engorged, cross-like crevasse at the mountain's peak. The resulting oil painting of the massive peak was displayed the year after its completion at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The suffering it conveyed inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write a poem mourning the loss of his wife titled "A Cross of Snow." It reads in part:

There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow upon its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the
changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day
she died.

By the end of his long life, Moran had produced more than 1,500 oil paintings, 800 watercolors and scores of other drawings and prints. Although he did paint subjects in Europe and Mexico, most of his work depicts scenes of the American West. It was through this art that Moran played a significant role in helping the Government promote and exploit the West. Even more than that, Moran succeeded, in the words of one of his biographers, in influencing "an entire generation's understanding of its country" and in "making the West an indelible part of the American consciousness."

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