Frederick Church and Albert Bierstadt painted huge, magnificent canvases of the American West and other exotic locales: people paid just to look at them. The Metropolitan Museum’s site describes the viewing “theater” for Church’s Heart of the Andes:
It was lit by gas jets concealed behind silver reflectors in a darkened chamber. The work caused a sensation, and twelve to thirteen thousand people paid twenty-five cents apiece to file by it each month.
Thomas Moran (1837-1926) tended to paint on a smaller scale – two or three feet wide rather than five or six or ten. One of these days I’ll visit San Francisco to see if Grand Canyon with Rainbow looks like the image below, or like the less intense one on the de Young’s site. Sometimes the colors on museum sites are inaccurate, but sometimes Wikipedia volunteers get overzealous with the Hue & Saturation edits. I prefer this version, and since I’m not writing a thesis on Moran’s use of color, this is the one I’m using as the image on my desktop.
In the early twentieth century, Church’s and Bierstadt’s paintings went out of fashion. Moran’s didn’t. Tourists yearned to visit the West as Moran painted it. Railroad tycoons and hotel developers used his paintings to advertise vacations to beautiful, distant places. Conservationists used Moran’s paintings to support their argument that parts of the West were so beautiful that they should be preserved from development.
Moran was the resident artist in the U.S. Geological Team that set out to explore Yellowstone in 1871. When he returned, he began work on an 7 x 12 foot canvas, Grand Canyon of the Colorado. (It’s reproduced, rather feebly, on the poster above.) In March 1872, Yellowstone was declared America’s first national park. Moran’s epic painting was purchased by Congress three months later for the then-enormous sum of $10,000. Congress later purchased Moran’s equally massive Chasm of the Colorado in 1874. Today the two hang together in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Moran was not a naturalist: he didn’t paint every detail he saw. “I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. Topography in Art is valueless.” A modern scholar notes, “Visitors to the sites made famous by his paintings struggled and failed to achieve the exact view, only then realizing how liberally the artist had compressed or expanded the scene in his works” (“Thomas Moran and the Spirit of Place“; the Moran quote is also from that article).
- As an illustration of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s “And the sun rose dripping, a bucketful of gold,” which I posted on last week, see Moran’s Sunset at Mid-Ocean, 1904. (Sunrise, sunset … swiftly flow the years.)
- For more paintings by Moran, see the Wikimedia page of his works; click on “Paintings by Thomas Moran” for his oils.
- In this painting of Venice by Moran, sold at Sotheby’s in May 2017 for $200,000, you can see the influence of J.M.W. Turner’s works, such as those at the Frick Collection (here and here).
- Moran, Church, and Bierstadt were all members of the Hudson River School, whose outlook on nature – mysterious, but able to be explored and enjoyed – was influential on the design of Central Park. (I have a book coming out presently on the early years of Central Park: more on that later.)
- Thomas Moran’s older brother Edward Moran (1829-1901) painted the image that best conveys the excitement at the unveiling of the Statue of Liberty, 1886. I used that one in this episode of the Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan app.