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It may seem like the highest of fantasies to suggest that a rugged cowboy lookalike from the rugged snowy mountains of Colorado might be influenced by the delicate and ethereal light-filled paintings of England's own J. M. W. Turner.
And yet this is nothing more or less than truth: born in England, and yet raised in America, Thomas Moran was enthralled in his late teens when he beheld illustrated books that contained copies of the English painter's works. So impressed was he, that he travelled to England to meet his idol's opus in person. This trip had a pronounced effect on Moran's works which henceforth were filled with light: giving his already wonderful vistas a serenity and sense of awe that still exudes from the paintings today.
Moran, along with Thomas Hill, William Keith and Albert Bierstadt, became known as being part of the Rocky Mountain school of landscape painters: all produced sweepingly grand and breath-taking pictures of scenes along the American west – all working at a time when progress was trampling, building and generally advancing its way across the mighty continent.
This image, 'The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado', depicts something of the enormous courage and hope with which settlers must have moved across the USA in search of gold, other riches, or simply the west coast. The scene is predominantly of snowy mountains, bleak and austere, sharp peaks and crags offering no succour to anyone daring to face up to their heights. And yet one man, seen picked out against tumbled boulders and bare rocky ground, is doing just that. Too treacherous underfoot to ride, he is leading his horse while both man and beast carry a moderate load. He is bent forward with his exertions and the horse seems to resist the man's urgings onwards.
Behind the rocky promontory upon which they are already so small as to be insignificant, the ground falls away sharply, indicating great height and much distance to the mountains: which, even so, effortlessly and carelessly dominate the man, making him seem like a speck of insignificance that does not need to be dealt with as it cannot possibly succeed… Clouds kindly cover half the sky, but on the left of the image, the lie is revealed: there are yet higher, sharper and even more unforgiving peaks, rising behind those which already menace the defiant scrap of humanity. The hubris and the courage are as breath-taking as the view, and no doubt Moran intended the work to convey this to the viewer.
The work, produced in 1875, is a chromolithograph – a method of printing colour works on flat surfaces, as compared to raised (e.g. intaglio) surfaces. It recently passed from the hands of private collectors to an unknown purchaser.