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Cascade Falls depicts one of the waterfalls that fascinated Moran during his visit to the Yosemite Valley in the summer of 1904. He made the trip with his daughter and as they explored the area together on horseback, he made many sketches of the stunning scenery he discovered there.
In this image, the waterfall cascades down a rock face creating a gentle mist that permeates the scene. In the valley below, lush greenery is mostly shaded by the surrounding cliffs, suggesting that this is a hidden and secluded spot. The piece evokes both a feeling of drama and a sense of peace. The water in the background is rushing and roaring while the pool at the bottom is quiet and calm. The jagged, angular rocks at the top of the waterfall give way at the bottom to more rounded stones, worn smooth by time.
Working in oil on canvas, the artist achieves this dichotomy by using soft, expressive brush strokes to represent the rushing water, and fine, delicate detail on the tree in the forground. This draws the viewer's eye to the centre of the scene where the frenzied movement of water meets the stillness below. His use of light and shadow also serve to focus attention to the base of the waterfall, where a gleaming white cloud of spray obscures the vibrant aquamarine below. This skilled layering of colour creates a richness that conveys the depth and coolness of the water.
Ominous black clouds hang heavily in the sky above, and at first it is difficult to tell where the mist around the waterfall ends and where the clouds in the sky begin. The power of this painting lies in its portrayal of water in many forms. Moran reveals a torrent capable of wearing down rock, a clear pool, and a soft mist which drifts back to the sky and prepares to fall again, thus repeating the cycle.
Thomas Moran is associated with a group of painters known as the Rocky Mountain School of landscape painters, including Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Hill and William Keith. Like Moran, these artists shared a love of the American Western landscape and were inspired by scenes of natural beauty. Bierstadt in particular is famous for his paintings of the Yosemite Valley, which he first started producing in 1863.