Thomas Moran and Yellowstone National Park


By Christine Swendseid

The long career of Thomas Moran, one of America's foremost 19th Century landscape artists, was highlighted by his inclusion in the Hayden Survey of the West, including Yellowstone National Park in 1871. His subsequent paintings were enormously popular, and drew large crowds when exhibited. He provided one of the first glimpses into the natural beauty of Yellowstone for the general public. His painting, "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" was purchased by the Senate for an unheard of sum of $20,000, and hung in the Senate lobby for decades.

Moran was born in Lancashire, England in 1837 to a family of weavers. Due to economic pressures, his family immigrated to America in 1844, first settling in Baltimore, and finally, in Philadelphia. The family did well in America, and Thomas found an instant affinity for the American landscape. The area around his home town in England was heavily influenced by the Industrial Revolution, and lacked the epic grandeur that he found in Pennsylvania, New York, and other states in the region. He flourished in this environment, and was influenced by the Hudson River School of landscape painting.

During this period, Moran was also influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement in art, embracing their conventions of veracity to nature. He admired Turner immensely, and embarked upon a study program in England in 1862, where he tracked down as many of Turner’s landscapes as possible. Moran was definitely the child of an age, embracing the ideal of the romantic landscape, and the drama of wilderness. He joined a long tradition of artists who traveled with sketch book and paintbrush in hand, searching for the sublime scene. He stayed true to this traditional emphasis throughout his career, despite criticisms of being old-fashioned in his later years. 

Most Victorian tourists attempted to capture their favorite views by sketching, painting, and journaling their way across Europe, the Middle East, and all other points exotic. Among these were such luminaries as John Ruskin, David Roberts, Jakob Burckhardt, Goethe, and the Shelleys. Early photographic equipment was cumbersome and expensive, as well as technically challenging. Many artists preferred the mobility afforded by a sketchbook, as well as the ability to develop sketches made in situ into full compositions often completed in oil. 

Nothing fueled the imaginations of the 19th Century more than accounts of explorations. In the years following the Civil War in America, published accounts of journeys into the heart of the continent were immensely popular. Perhaps the most fantastic region to be visited was the Yellowstone Area. Lacking anything remotely akin to the natural wonders described by travelers to the area, readers in the East were perplexed and at a loss to imagine the scenery. Into this arena of public curiosity and voracious expansion westward, Moran requested inclusion into Dr. Ferdinand Hayden’s Great Western Survey of 1871. He joined the photographer, William Henry Jackson in an attempt to record his encounter with Yellowstone. He ultimately undertook eight trips to western America between 1871 and 1892, and produced paintings documenting Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Grand Tetons, and many other locations. 

Travel during this period was anything but easy. Moran endured plenty of discomfort and difficulty in order to satisfy his desire to view the west first hand. While on his first trip, he developed a cooperative relationship with the photographer, Jackson, often scouting locations for perfect vantage points. He later used the photographs for reference. Yellowstone changed him as an artist. His sketches took on an immediacy and less-detailed style. There was just too much to see and appreciate for him to create the meticulous and painstaking landscape studies of his earlier career. Undoubtedly, he was spurred on by the knowledge that he was the first artist to document many of the geyser basins and rock formations of the area. His vision would influence how the world viewed Yellowstone.

Upon his return to the east coast, Moran developed his sketches into illustrations for publication in Scribner’s and Harper’s Weekly magazines. Through these images, and subsequent printed pieces, Moran helped publicize Yellowstone internationally. His sketches of the region helped convince Congress to create Yellowstone as the first national park. The combination of Hayden’s detailed scientific and geologic studies with Moran’s vivid images proved to the world at large that Yellowstone was unique and deserved protection. 

Thomas Moran’s images of Yellowstone National Park are among the most influential of his long career. Upon his death in 1926, he was remembered mostly for helping popularize Yellowstone in the public imagination. He died without having succumbed to many of the predominant artistic movements of his lifetime, and remained true to his romantic vision of nature.

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