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Moran’s The Summit of the Sierras (1872-75) depicts the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada (or 'Snowy Range') that line the border of California and Nevada.
Painting this landscape with an alpine sense of sublimity and scale evocative of European and Romantic influences, from Caspar David Friedrich's Wanderer above the Sea of Fog to Percy Bysshe Shelley's Mont Blanc, Moran's composition captures the paradoxical mix of titanic force and delicate solitude at the centre of the scene.
Appearing out of brown and grey rock that rises from the painting's lower middle; a slim, weather beaten but pioneering pair of trees rise with their subdued coniferous green out of the barky browns of their trunks, roots, rocks, and rotting fallen companions. Following the line from the lower centre to the middle right of the painting is the shaded, brown silhouette of the closest mountain, framing the corner from which the paintings rocky base arises with a muted dark brown, partitioning the lower rocky half of the painting from the top.
One major feature of the painting however does dare to cross this partition. The single tree that climbs highest makes solitary, and delicate progress with its thin top rising from lower brown tones to stand out over the greys and whites of the mountains in the distance, creating a striking contrast of colour and referential scale. The detailed still-life of the rocky outcropping is placed in the context of a mountain range extending beyond sight. The tallest tree stands as a single and solitary peak against the many and multiple peaks of the mountain range behind it.
The mountains that rise out and stand over the painting's lower, and closer section display a voluminous shape evocative of the sea and its crashing waves, with the middle mountain in particular appearing to near a concave shape with the slant in its form. Their colour is a mix of whites and icy blues dispersed over grey, capturing the range's melting and lying snow. These patches of ice and snow, like the mountain's shapes themselves, continue wave like motion, with brushwork suggesting something of sea-spray and distant billows. As the mountains recede further into the distance the highest and furthest peaks prevent our view beyond, save ragged and cumulus clouds that loom over the sky, with whites and icy blues (in line with the mountainous terrain) tapering into the heavens.