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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Thomas Moran was a British-born American landscape painter of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

An active member of both the Hudson River School and the Rocky Mountain School, Moran was instrumental in documenting the emerging American west through his vibrant paintings.

Somewhat of an artistic polymath, he was accomplished in several mediums including lithography, engraving and illustration. However, his long and productive career is defined by his prolific painting. Thomas died in 1926 at the aged of 89, but he continued to paint right up to the end of his life. Consequently, his vast body of work consisted of more than 1500 oils and 800 water colours many of which are on public display all over the United States, most notably, in The Smithsonian Museum and the White House.

The Creation of an Artist

At the age of 16, Thomas found employment as an apprentice wood engraver with a prominent magazine, Scribner's Monthly. Although the work was skilled Moran found little inspiration in it, preferring to spend his time drawing and painting. Under the guidance of his older brother Edward, himself a renowned seascape artist, Thomas’ artistic skills developed quickly, and within 18 months of his apprenticeship he was offered an alternative position as an illustrator. Illustration in watercolour remained his great love throughout his life.

Certainly, Thomas' earliest influences were his older brothers, most particularly Edward, but he was also inspired by other greats of the time. Through his brother’s association, he was introduced to James Hamilton, known as the "American Turner". Famed for his Turner-esque use of colour and light, Hamilton later became the young Moran’s mentor, encouraging him to explore light and technique to broaden his already considerable skills.

Although Moran favoured a traditional style, no other painter ignited his imagination more than J.M.W. Turner himself. Thomas poured over illustrations of Turner's work endlessly and eventually, in 1862, he actually travelled to Britain with the express purpose of seeing and studying his paintings in close quarters. Turner's influence stayed with Moran his whole life, particularly in the way in which he used colours to express light, and his choice of composition.

The Hudson River School

Further and perhaps more esoteric inspiration came to Moran from the British Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the writings of John Ruskin. Ruskin proposed that the artist's main role was to be faithful to nature in order to bring nature in all its honesty to the people and this philosophy rang true for Thomas. Perhaps that is why he found such common ground with the artists who made up The Hudson River School.

The Hudson River School was founded in 1825 by Thomas Cole. Although not a structured "school", it was made up of several like-minded landscape artists who painted the Hudson river valley and the surrounding scenery of New England. They shared a common philosophy about art and the need for the painter to make nature accessible to the viewer. They were romantic in their approach, but they always looked to express three fundamentals in their work; Discovery, exploration and settlement. They were renowned for their portrayal of celestial light and the glorification of American scenery. The school spanned several decades from 1825 to 1875 and claimed in its ranks some of the finest landscape painters America has known.

After Cole's early death in 1848, a new generation of painters began to emerge in the group; artists who wanted to expand their subject matter to the emerging western territories of America and South America. In 1871, Moran, emboldened by the previous exploration of fellow Hudson River School artist, Albert Bierstadt, set off on a Geographical expedition to the uncharted Yellowstone region. Here, Thomas discovered his true calling, to painting the "Cathedrals of Nature". Perhaps Moran more than most of the members of the school felt keenly the presence of God in what he was witnessing in the landscapes of the American wilderness. Certainly, he managed to portray the divine in both his use of colours and the manner in which he created light.

Yellowstone and The Grand Canyon

Like several of the second generation of painters from the Hudson River School, Moran sought out inspiration further afield and was the first painter to tackle the huge horizons of Yellowstone in Wyoming and the Grand Canyon in Arizona. Moran first became aware of the Yellowstone area when he was asked, by the magazine he worked for, to enhance expedition sketches they wanted to print. The images of the region were unlike anything he had ever seen, and he resolved to join the next party going west. He was not a natural outdoorsman and the trip was arduous to say the least, however he brought back a mind full of composition and set about creating some of America's most iconic images.

Thomas' illustrations, coupled with fellow explorer, William henry Jackson's photographs were published in periodicals were able to describe the beauty of the wilderness in ways that words never could. The nation became enthralled and just one year later, congress was persuaded that this "Yellowstone" needed to be preserved for future generations and the first National Park was created. That same year, Moran created the first of his epic canvases, commemorating his inaugural trip The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872). The scale and grandeur were unprecedented, and the painting was promptly bought by the government for $10,000. Thomas' reputation as a landscape artist was assured and he became known as Thomas "Yellowstone" Moran.

There is no doubt that Yellowstone was the catalyst for Moran’s genius, but it was on his third trip west in 1873, that he found his truly lasting inspiration. During a geographical expedition to Utah, Thomas caught his first glimpse of the Grand Canyon by the north rim. He is quoted in a letter to his wife as saying, “(It) was by far the most awfully grand and impressive scene that I have ever yet seen (and) …. Of all the places on Earth, (it) is the most inspiring in its pictorial possibilities.” He returned from his journeys to create The Chasm of the Colorado (1874) which was also sold to Congress for $10,000; an enormous amount of money at the time.

Masterpieces and Other Great Works

Moran's paintings are so monumental in scale it is hard to imagine creating a best of list. However, there are a few prominent works which effectively highlight his journey as an artist. Clearly no list of great works would be complete without the aforementioned, The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (1872) and The Chasm of the Colorado (1874). Both of these canvases put Moran on the significant artist list and allowed him to be taken seriously for his future works. They are truly splendid in size, execution and atmosphere. It is little wonder that they prompted such an outpouring of awe and kick-started the conservationist movement in America. Both of these paintings are housed in the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC.

There are, however, a couple of lesser known paintings that speak to the viewer of the man and his passions. Firstly, Fiercely the Red Sun Descending Burned His Way Along the Heavens (1876). This painting is worthy of note for several reasons, but primarily it is an homage to the great J.M.W. Turner whose work inspired Thomas his whole life. However, there is much more to this work than simple tribute. A departure from Moran's usual landscapes, this seascape depicts the awful might of God's will in the merciless violence of the sea. The painting displays Thomas' amazing skills with colour and light at the same time showcasing his technical abilities through his masterful application and brush strokes.

It would appear to be a masterclass in all of the major schools of 19 th century; from impressionism to luminism, from classicalism to romanticism. Today it can be found in the North Carolina Museum of Art. Finally, it is appropriate that this list would include, Grand Canyon (From Hermit Rim Road) (1912). This work is from the end of Moran's life, but it is a mighty love letter to the place that inspired him the most throughout his career. This painting is a huge panorama of the length of the Canyon yet there is breath-taking detail in the foreground; the juxtaposition creates intimacy and wonder in equal measure. This painting, today, hangs in The Santa Fe Collection of Southwestern Art in Chicago.

The Legacy of Thomas Moran

Moran's legacy is indisputable in the creation of Yellowstone National Park and the fact that without his amazing sketches and illustrations people would have never known what wonders there were to protect and preserve. It is indeed fitting that Mount Moran in the Grand Teton National Park bears his name. An additional monument to Thomas' work is the Thomas Moran House in East Hampton, NY; a family home which Moran designed, built and subsequently covered with his favourite art and images. Despite being nearly demolished by a hurricane in 2012, the house remains a national historical monument for visitors and art buffs today.

However, his legacy goes beyond the obvious to the subtleties of inspiration. There is surely a clear path of influence to the glorious photography of Ansel Adams, so moved by the beauty of paint on canvas, he felt compelled to preserve the beauty in prints. Countless artists and environmentalists have certainly been motivated by Moran’s work, be it oil, watercolour of illustrations and perhaps our natural world is just a little safer today because of his passion and vision.