It would seem improbable that two landscape paintings would affect history, but Thomas Moran’s “Chasm of the Colorado” and “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” did just that. And today, another painting titled “The Three Tetons” hangs in the Oval Office.
Moran was born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, in 1837, and his family came to America when he was 7.
His artistic flair began as a teenager, working as an apprentice in Philadelphia for wood-engravers Scattergood & Telfer. He found the work boring, but enjoyed painting in watercolors in his spare time. He could never have envisioned that one day his paintings would hang in such prominent places in the nation’s capital.
Thomas Moran took his extensive talents to the American frontier during a time of exploration, westward expansion, ending of the fur trade, invasion of Native American tribal lands by whites, death and destruction between the two cultures, and the building of railroads that would open up the whole country and make the changes irreversible.
While Lewis and Clark were on their historic Corps of Discovery expedition from 1804 to 1806, the newly invented steam engine was driving the Industrial Revolution. Steam-powered ships could navigate America’s waterways like the Missouri and Mississippi, but they couldn’t go over mountains. Trains would do that, and it was the development of the railway system by the railroad companies with federal government help that would bring Thomas Moran to the frontier West.
In the late 19th century, the government organized survey expeditions to explore the West and open it up to settlement, commerce and exploitation of natural resources — timber and mining.
Railroad barons were eager to stretch the railroads coast-to-coast and were delighted the government would help. They achieved that goal on May 10, 1869, in Utah at a ceremony hammering in the Golden Spike at Promontory Point, joining tracks they had been laying from both east and west.
From 1867 to 1879, four major government-sponsored surveys were sent out to explore 400,000 square miles of the little-known West.
Those expeditions usually included engineers, Army soldiers, laborers, surveyors, scientists, doctors, artists and photographers. One of them was the Hayden expedition of 1871, a geologic survey of Wyoming’s Yellowstone area, with the mission of exploring its natural features and resources and the sources of the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers.
Geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden headed the party under orders from President Ulysses S. Grant’s Secretary of Commerce Columbus Delano (1809-1896) “to secure as full materials as possible for the illustration of your final report, such as sketches, photographs, etc.”
That’s why they needed painter Thomas Moran and frontier photographer William Henry Jackson. The images they created helped open up the American West
While Moran was still a teenager, he drew excellent illustrations for Scattergood & Telfer’s publications — soon thereafter establishing himself as a respected painter, engraver, and illustrator, creating images for Scribner’s Magazine and other publications. He was never “a starving artist.”
He studied his craft carefully, finding great inspiration from American painter James Hamilton, and especially from the famous British landscape artist J.M.W. Turner who would forever influence his artistic style after a trip back to England in 1862 to see Turner’s work in the National Gallery in London.
Moran was still with Scribner’s in 1871 when he learned about Hayden’s expedition, and eagerly signed up.
He was supported by banker Jay Cooke and his company who owned the Northern Pacific Railroad and readily saw how 34-year-old Moran’s artwork could help further their goal of rail expansion across America.
His diary shows how closely he and photographer Jackson worked on the expeditions:
“July 31st — Left the falls reached crater Hill. Large Sulpher spring & many mud springs left at noon & camped at the mud volcano
Aug 1st — photo & sketching at mud volcano. Left mud volcano at noon & reached the Yellowstone Lake where the whole party & Escort were encamped.
Aug 2nd — made photographs & sketches of the Lake & river in forenoon. Followed the main Camp in the afternoon to the Hot springs on the Border of the Lake. 30 miles through Heavy timber & was lost for several Hours at night in a dense forest on a mountain side covered with fallen trees. Got into Camp at 10½ Oclock.”
Moran didn’t attempt to paint photographically accurate likenesses of his landscapes. Creating true images was Jackson’s job with a camera.
Moran painted brilliantly colored fanciful scenes combining different elements of the landscape, but not necessarily in their actual locations. His “true impression” — as he called it — was to capture the mood and color of the subject. Color photography didn’t come into its own until the 1930s, though color photography experimentation had been continuing since the middle 1800s.
One source reporting on the knowledge gained from those government survey expeditions said, “These volumes … constitute probably the most important single contemporary source of knowledge on Western geography and history and their value is greatly enhanced by the inclusion of many beautiful plates in color of scenery, native inhabitants, fauna and flora of the Western country.”
Contributing to those “beautiful plates,” Jackson’s photos showed the public the reality of the picturesque West in black-and-white, while Moran fired up public interest through his colorful and dramatic romanticized paintings.
“During the forty days Thomas Moran spent in the Yellowstone area, he documented over 30 different sites,” National Park Service says. “His sketches along with William Henry Jackson’s photographs captured the nation’s attention and forever linked the artist with the area. In fact, his name became so synonymous with Yellowstone that he was often referred to as Thomas ‘Yellowstone’ Moran.”
Moran’s frontier days did not end with the Hayden expedition. In 1873, he and Jackson would team-up again on Major John Wesley Powell’s expedition to the West, when he painted two of his most famous works: “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” and “The Chasm of the Colorado.”
Congress bought both of them for the then-incredible sum of $10,000 each to be displayed in the Capitol building in Washington. He used the money to do some painting in Venice, Italy — a favorite destination for his idol J.M.W. Turner.
While he was there, he bought a gondola and shipped it back to the U.S. to use as a model for paintings of Venice that he made in America from sketches.
In a 1927 essay, writer Robert Allerton Parker described Moran as a pioneer who “went forth in search of beauty as others were in search of copper, gold and oil. He was creative because he awakened the American consciousness to the permanent value of those wide, measureless expanses of wilderness, of sky and mountain and extravagances of Nature, as natural resources of beauty, to be prized and conserved and held as great national parks.”
A Harper’s Weekly story said, “A Bill of importance has passed the House of Representatives, 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.”
When two of Moran’s huge paintings were displayed in the nation’s Capitol Building, it made him famous — and helped convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as a national park.
On March 1, 1872, President Grant signed the bill making Yellowstone the nation’s first national park. The Yellowstone Act of 1872 designated the region as a public “pleasuring-ground,” which would be preserved “from injury or spoliation of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within.”
The great frontier painter lived his last days in Santa Barbara, frequently traveling to Acoma and Laguna pueblos in New Mexico to paint the scenery and lifestyle of the Native Americans living there. He died in Santa Barbara in 1926 of natural causes. He and his wife Mary had two daughters and a son.
Thomas Moran — an Englishman from Lancashire — became one of America’s greatest artists, who produced more than 1,500 oil paintings, 800 watercolors and scores of other drawings and prints.
He rightly deserved to have one of his paintings displayed today in one of the most important offices in the world.
Syd Albright is a writer and journalist living in Post Falls. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Self-portrait by J.M.W. Turner (1776-1851), whose painting style was copied by Thomas Moran.
SMITHSONIAN AMERICAN ART MUSEUM
Thomas Moran’s “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” painting caught public attention and promoted the West (1872).
GIFT OF HUGH GORDON MILLER
“Shoshone Falls, Snake River, Idaho” watercolor by Thomas Moran (c.1875).
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART, WASHINGTON, D.C.
Thomas Moran’s romanticized watercolor of “Mount of the Holy Cross” in Colorado, snow in cracks making the cross image (1890).
William Henry Jackson who accompanied Thomas Moran on Rocky Mountain expedition and his bulky camera equipment.
NATIONAL GALLERY OF ART
Joseph Mallord William Turner painting of Venice, Italy (1834).
Thomas Moran painting of Venice, Italy in style learned from J.M.W. Turner (1898).
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS
William Henry Jackson photo of Camp on Mirror Lake, Yellowstone during Hayden Geologic Expedition of 1871.
“The Three Tetons” (1895) painting by Thomas Moran currently hangs in the Oval Office.