Dallas Museum of Art

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Thomas Moran and the Spirit of Place


Thomas Moran's rich, color-filled celebration of the American landscape, the first exhibition devoted to Moran's paintings to be shown in Dallas, will be on view at the Dallas Museum of Art from March 4 through May 6, 2001 in the Museum's J. E. R. Chilton Galleries. Thomas Moran and the Spirit of Place, which includes 42 watercolors, prints, and oil paintings from the DMA and Dallas private collections, spans a major portion of the artist's career, from early views of Yellowstone in 1872 to mountainous scenes painted in California in 1922.

Through his painted evocations of breathtaking scenery in the American West, Thomas Moran played a decisive role in the establishment by Congress of the National Park System. At the age of 34, Moran traveled to Yellowstone in 1871 at the invitation of the Northern Pacific Railroad. The paintings that resulted from that trip set the tone for the remainder of his career, according to Eleanor Harvey, DMA Curator of American Art. "His watercolors, engravings, etchings, and oil paintings would grace the pages of guidebooks published by the railroads to promote tourism to the American West, " said Dr. Harvey. (left: Thomas Moran, Index Peak, Yellowstone National Park, 1914, oil on canvas, 20 x 30 1/4 inches, Private collection)

Moran's association with the exploration of the American West and the paintings that resulted from his travels created a base of support from well-to-do tourists eager to visit remote regions that he painted. He was popular with developers who planned to build hotels and resorts for travelers on the newly completed railroad lines. He was also admired and encouraged by conservation advocates who wanted to preserve the natural beauty of the West for future generations to appreciate. The interests of all of these groups converged on the desire for a National Park System to sustain a spirit of place unique to America, and Moran's paintings supplied the visual imagery that helped people agree on where those places should be. By the end of his long career, he was considered an artist who had helped create a national art for America. (left: Thomas Moran, Great Falls of Yellowstone, 1898, oil on canvas, 30 x 25 inches, Private collection)

Moran maintained a high degree of popularity throughout his career, even though by the 1880s the fashion of the art world had turned to a more impressionist style of painting. Beginning in the early 1870s, he traveled to the American West and documented the wonders of nature that he beheld in towering mountain ranges, vast canyons, and untouched valleys and rivers.

His first journey west was as the resident artist for the U.S. Geological Survey's scientific corps accompanying Ferdinand V. Hayden's survey of Yellowstone in 1871. For 16 days, Moran sketched and William Henry Jackson photographed the most compelling features of what was to become Yellowstone National Park, from the impressive geothermal formations of geysers and hot springs to the vivid colors of the river canyon itself. Moran's watercolors and Jackson's photographs were presented to Congress as part of the successful effort to designate Yellowstone as America's first national park.

The following year Moran accompanied a geological survey on his first trip to see the Grand Canyon. In 1876, his paintings of Yellowstone and the American West were the basis of 15 chromolithographs produced by Louis Prang & Co. The circulation of the prints helped establish Moran's national reputation as the most important living landscape painter in America.

In the ensuing years, Moran depicted vistas in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and many other natural wonders. His paintings inspired the National Parks Association to maintain the chain of national parks as they appeared in Moran's paintings, says Dr. Harvey. "Even the educational material handed out in the parks, and at each landmark site, resemble the brochures, wall labels, and text panels found in art museums. Preserving the past for posterity became a central tenet of the land presentation movement; the retrospective quality of Moran's style, reminiscent of the Hudson River school of painting, preserved that vision in paint." (left: Thomas Moran, Canyon Mists: Zoroaster Peak, Grand Canyon, 1914, oil on canvas, 31 x 25 1/2 inches, Private collection)

"This exhibition displays the extraordinary depth of holdings by Thomas Moran existing in private collections in Dallas," said John R. Lane, the DMA's Eugene McDermott Director. "We are indebted to the collectors who have loaned their art to make the exhibition possible."



Thomas Moran and the Spirit of Place

by Dr. Eleanor Jones Harvey, Curator of American Art, Dallas Museum of Art

Thomas Moran (1837-1926) enjoyed a lengthy, highly successful career as an artist, spanning the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. His technique varied little from his Yellowstone debut in 1871 until his death in 1926. Well regarded during his lifetime, he did not endure the steep slide into critical disfavor suffered by two of his fellow landscape painters, Frederic Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902). Between 1880 and 1900, when Moran was at the height of his popularity, mainstream painting fashion had shifted from the Hudson River school style to impressionism. Yet even in his old age Moran remained an important figure at the periphery of the art world, and in his final years, he was designated-with affection-as a member of the "Old Guard," those artists who had done "their share in building up a national art."[1]>

How did Moran manage to maintain a successful career painting in a style that had gone out of fashion before his own career had gotten solidly underway? The answer, which has proven elusive, derives from Moran's patronage and the historical circumstances of western exploration and development following the Civil War. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 changed forever the experience of going west. Travelers exchanged the hazards of the overland journey for the comfort of a Pullman car, enduring the monotony of the Great Plains for a matter of days instead of weeks, and anticipating the wonders that awaited them at their destination. Ferdinand V. Hayden's survey of Yellowstone in 1871 culminated in legislation designating the region as America's first official national park. Moran's involvement with that survey, largely at the urging of the Northern Pacific Railroad, set the tone for the remainder of his career.[2] His watercolors, engravings, etchings, and oil paintings would grace the pages of guidebooks published by the railroads to promote tourism to the American West.

Thomas Moran's association with the exploration of the West made him popular with three different yet allied constituencies: well-to-do tourists eager to visit remote regions painted by Moran and his colleagues; developers affiliated with the railroads, who envisioned hotels and other amenities for such travelers; and conservation advocates, notably John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club and a passionate advocate for landscape and wildlife conservation.[3] All three favored establishing parks for reasons of self-interest; however, they found common ground in the desire to preserve such places for future generations to appreciate.[4] The purpose of the National Park System was to sustain a spirit of place unique to America; Thomas Moran's paintings would supply the imagery that facilitated agreement on where those places should be.

When he joined the Hayden survey of the Yellowstone region in June 1871, Moran had little idea of the impact his paintings would have on American perceptions of the West. In fact, the thirty-four-year-old artist had to learn to ride a horse in preparation for his trip, having spent his youth in Philadelphia riding on trains or in a boat to reach his destinations.[5] His interest in exploring Yellowstone derived from illustrations he provided for a pair of articles describing the region published in Scribner's Monthly earlier that year.[6] Intrigued by the fanciful descriptions of geysers and mud volcanoes, Moran began gathering resources to pay for his own trip west. His principal advocate and source of funds was Jay Cooke, a founder of the Northern Pacific Railroad, who was interested in establishing a route into Yellowstone and building a series of luxury hotels near the main attractions.[7] Thanks to a letter of support from Cooke's office manager, A. B. Nettleton, Moran joined the U.S. Geological Survey's scientific corps as its resident artist.[8]

What Moran experienced in Yellowstone was nothing less than his coming of age as an artist, and it did not take long for him to recognize the enormous potential of the region. For sixteen days he and survey photographer William Henry Jackson sketched and photographed the most compelling features. From the impressive geothermal formations of geysers and hot springs to the improbably vivid colors of the river canyon itself, Moran found a landscape sufficient to provide his sketchbook with ideas for paintings to span his entire fifty-year career.

Moran's ability to extrapolate the signature aspects and atmosphere of a specific place, and then arrange those features in compositions that conveyed that direct experience, lifted his paintings beyond topography. Despite their clear sense of place, Moran's subjects are never minutely detailed. His brush strokes carry painterly weight yet articulate nuances of form and structure born of acute observation and an understanding of basic geology and botany. 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.[9] That talent for conveying the spirit of a place served Moran well in Yellowstone, as he sought to render unique geological forms in a manner his audience would find authentic yet familiar.

When the artist returned east in the fall, he immediately set to work on a massive painting, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, measuring 7 by 12 feet . He was still hard at work the following spring when President Grant, after intense lobbying from Hayden and representatives of the railroads, signed the bill establishing Yellowstone as America's first official national park on March 1, 1872.[10] Hayden's report, along with Jackson's photographs and Moran's watercolor sketches, played a significant role in convincing Congress to take this action; three months later, Congress purchased Moran's completed painting for the enormous sum of $10,000.

The following year Moran made his first trip to the Grand Canyon in Arizona with Major John Wesley Powell's geological survey. In 1874 he completed a massive canvas titled Chasm of the Colorado, purchased by Congress as a pendant to his Yellowstone painting. Two years later, in time for the nation's centennial, Louis Prang & Co. issued a deluxe set of chromolithographs based on fifteen of Moran's paintings of that region and other notable western sites. Included were maps locating each of Moran's images, and the complete texts of Hayden's survey report of 1871 and the bill establishing Yellowstone as a national park. With a pair of impressive paintings hanging together on Capitol Hill, and Prang's chromolithographs in circulation, Moran was widely considered the most important living landscape painter in America. Patrons requested pictures resembling those purchased by Congress in the 1870s, and the artist obliged by painting numerous versions of many of the sites he had helped make famous. Despite the large number of artists painting the American West, Moran's paintings would come to epitomize the spirit of place in America's national parks.

Tourism in the American West changed dramatically with the expansion of rail lines and the building of luxury hotels at each destination.[11] Until the turn of the century, American tourism focused on rivaling European spa vacations. Thus, elegantly outfitted rail cars deposited wealthy travelers at the doorstep of luxury hotels built close to the chief attractions, and lavishly illustrated guidebooks extolled both the natural wonders and man-made amenities to be found at these otherwise remote and inhospitable locations. While Moran was in Yellowstone, the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad completed a spur line to Manitou, site of geothermal hot springs near Colorado Springs. There Gen. William A. J. Palmer and British physician and financier Dr. William A. Bell, founders of the railroad company, built the resort community of Manitou Springs, designed to attract wealthy visitors and convalescents to the therapeutic hot springs nearby. Its instant and sustained popularity earned it the sobriquet "The Saratoga of the West."[12] In 1881 Moran visited the area as a guest of the railroad,[13] making several paintings based on recollections of the scenery, and in 1901 he painted the view from Glen Eyrie, in the nearby Garden of the Gods.

Manitou's far west rival was the Hotel Del Monte in Monterey Bay, California, built by the Southern Pacific Railroad subsidiary Pacific Improvement Company.[14] Called the "Queen of American watering places," its appellation derived from the reputation of the hotel rather than the efficacy of the spas.[15] When the Del Monte opened in June 1880, Monterey Bay was touted as the "Naples of the New World."[16] Three years later, the Northern Pacific inaugurated rail service to Yellowstone and opened luxury accommodations within the park.[17] Their advertising campaign designated Yellowstone as "Wonderland," and used images derived from Moran's work to promote the area as a destination.[18]

In the first decade of the new century, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon joined Yellowstone as national parks,[19] their status preceded by a network of rail lines. The Yosemite Valley Railroad, which ended just outside the park at El Portal, California, was built in 1905-07 with a company-owned stage line handling the last twelve miles into the valley floor.[20] The Grand Canyon became more accessible in 1901, when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway finished a spur line to the head of the Bright Angel Trail at the South Rim. Moran, who visited the canyon by stagecoach in 1892 on a trip underwritten by the Santa Fe, eventually made annual trips to the canyon with his wife, and later his daughters. Between 1892 and his final trip in 1924, Moran's rail fare and lodgings at the El Tovar Hotel, which opened in 1905, were usually discounted or waived by the Santa Fe in recognition of the artist's identification with the park.[21] A drawing of the elderly artist, adapted from a 1910 photograph of him sketching with his daughters at the Grand Canyon, effectively underscored the timelessness of Moran's paintings, and of the canyon itself.

That sense of timelessness was ultimately the key to Moran's artistic success. The census of 1890 had come to the unthinkable conclusion that there was no more frontier. The resulting shift in the perception of the American West from a place with infinite open space to a region waiting to be settled was the subject of historian Frederic Jackson Turner's influential lecture "The Significance of the Frontier in American History." Turner's lecture, delivered at the 1893 World's Fair, was considered a watershed event in the promotion of national parks as refuges from development. The belief that tourism was, in effect, an exercise in visiting the past contributed to the need for artwork that was retrospective in its style and reverential in its outlook. Moran's paintings filled those criteria.

Modern park policy has, intentionally or not, maintained these landmarks to resemble the vistas captured by Thomas Moran. Routes within the various parks allow tourists to revisit the sites Moran and his fellow explorers discovered during the surveys. The park system and the railroad companies and the tourism infrastructure they helped develop all present these landscapes as though they were part of a vast outdoor museum. In 1923 the president of the National Parks Association asserted, "Our national park system is a national museum. Its purpose is to preserve forever . . certain areas of extraordinary scenic magnificence in a condition of primitive nature. Its recreational value is also very great, but recreation is not distinctive of the system. The function which alone distinguishes the national parks . . . is the museum function made possible only by the parks' complete conservation."[22] Even the educational material handed out in the parks, and at each landmark site, resemble the brochures, wall labels, and text panels found in art museums. Preserving the past for posterity became a central tenet of the land preservation movement;[23] the retrospective quality of Moran's style, reminiscent of the Hudson River school of painting, preserved that vision in paint.



1 Charles H. Caffin, "The Seventy-sixth Annual Exhibition of the National Academy of Design," Harper's Weekly (19 January 1901): 74, quoted in Nancy Anderson, Thomas Moran (New Haven: Yale University Press for the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1996): 163.

2 "Mr. Moran, landscape painter, . . . is directly in the interest of the N.P.R.R. Company. The scientific corps was fitted out by the Secretary of the Interior, and is complete in every detail. . . . We doubt not that the report of this scientific expedition will attract thousands of tourists to the country of the Yellowstone." Helena (Montana) Herald, 11 July 1871; quoted in Anderson, Thomas Moran, 197.

3 When the Southern Pacific Railroad Company lobbied in 1890 for routes in Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant national parks, John Muir noted: "Even the soulless Southern Pacific R.R. Co., never counted on for anything good, helped nobly in pushing the bill for [Yosemite] park through Congress," quoted in Alfred Runte, Trains of Discovery: Western Railroads and the National Parks, rev. ed. (Niwot, Colo.: Roberts Rinehart, Inc., Publishers, 1990): 31, 33. In 1898 SPRR founded Sunset magazine to promote Western tourism and settlement in California.

4 According to the National Park Service Act, the purpose of the NPS was "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historical objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." U.S. Statutes at Large, 39 (1916): 535, quoted in Alfred Runte, National Parks: The American Experience, (Lincoln, Nebr.: University of Nebraska Press, 1979): 104. Landscape architect and parks advocate Frederic Law Olmsted drafted the wording of the passage. Ibid., 210 (see n. 51).

5 Thurman Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 2d ed., rev. and enl. (Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998): 85. According to William Henry Jackson, Moran "made a picturesque appearance when mounted . . The jaunty tilt of his sombrero, his long, yellowish beard, and the portfolio under his arm marked the artistic type, with something of local color imparted by a rifle hung from the saddle horn." William Henry Jackson, "Famous American mountain Paintings, I: With Moran in the Yellowstone," Appalachia 21, no. 82 (December 1936): 152.

6 Nathaniel Langford, "The Wonders of the Yellowstone," Scribner's Monthly 2, no. 1 (May 1871): 1-17; Nathaniel Langford, "The Wonders of the Yellowstone, second article," Scribner's Monthly 2, no. 2 (June 1871): 113-28.

7 Langford delivered a series of lectures that were partially intended to promote Cooke's ambitions: "What, then, is the one thing wanting to render this remarkable region of natural wonders, accessible. I answer, the very improvement now in process of construction, the N.P.R.R. by means of which, the traveller [sic], crossing the rich grasslands of Dakota will strike the Yellowstone a short distance above its mouth, traverse for 500 miles the beautiful lower valley of that river with its strange scenery, and will be enabled to reach this region from the Atlantic seaboard within 3 days, and can see all the wonders I have here described." (Nathaniel P. Langford, untitled lecture notes, pp. 183, 185, Yellowstone Park Reference Library, quoted in Aubrey L. Haines, Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, 1973): 95.

8 A. B. Nettleton to Hayden (on Northern Pacific letterhead), 7 June 1871, National Archives Microfilm 623, reel 2, frame 0120, quoted in Haines, Yellowstone National Park, 101.

9 As Moran told one reporter, "I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. Topography in Art is valueless." "American Painters," The Art Journal n.s. 5, no. 50 (February 1879): 43.

10 A. B. Nettleton to Hayden (written on Jay Cooke & Co., Bankers, Financial Agents, Northern Pacific Railroad Company letterhead), 27 October 1871. Nettleton suggests that Hayden incorporate the idea of a public park as part of his official report to Congress: "Judge Kelley has made a suggestion which strikes me as being an excellent one, viz.: Let Congress pass a bill reserving the Great Geyser Basin as a public park forever--just as it has reserved that far inferior wonder the Yosemite valley and big trees. If you approve this would such a recommendation be appropriate in your official report?" RG-57, Hayden Survey, General Letters Received, 1866-74, vol. III, National Archives, cited in Haines, Yellowstone National Park, 109. Judge Kelley was a Pennsylvania Republican member of Congress and an advocate of the railroads and close friend of Jay Cooke.

11 "In Europe, the hotel is a means to an end. In America it is the end. . . Hotels are for [Americans] what cathedrals, monuments, and the beauties of nature are for us." Max O'Rell [Paul Blouet], Jonathan and His Continent: Rambles Through an American Society (Bristol, England: Cassell & Company, 1889), 295, quoted in Earl Pomoroy, In Search of the Golden West: The Tourist in Western America (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957): 17.

12 Anne Farrar Hyde, An American Vision: Far Western Landscape and National Culture, 1820-1920 (New York: New York University Press, 1990): 161.

13 Moran provided wood engravings from this trip to illustrate Ernest Ingersoll's Crest of the Continent: A Record of a Summer's Ramble in the Rockies and Beyond, published in 1885. Both men were guests of the railroad that summer.

14 The development of Monterey Bay was the personal project of Charles Crocker, founder of Central and Southern Pacific Railroads.

15 Hyde, An American Vision, 161.

16 Monterey California; the Most Charming Winter Resort in the World . . .(n.p., ca. 1881): 13. The Del Monte Hotel was accessible from San Francisco via the Del Monte Ltd., "The Fastest Train in the United States West of the Missouri River." Pomoroy, In Search of the Golden West, 33, 23.

17 The Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel opened in 1883. The Northern Pacific built ten other hotels inside the park. The most elegant was the Old Faithful Inn, built in 1904 and the first to resemble a rustic Adirondack camp. Runte, Trains of Discovery, 22. See also Hyde, An American Vision, 252-53; 259-60.

18 The earliest of these brochures, published annually by the railroad, was titled Northern Pacific Railroad: The Wonderland Route to the Pacific Coast. Haines points out that the railroad probably borrowed the term from "The New Wonderland," the title of an article in the New York Times (23 October 1871). He also suggests the term ultimately derives from Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, published in 1865. Haines, Yellowstone National Park, 104.

19 Although Yosemite was declared a park in 1864 by President Lincoln, it was administered by the state of California until 1905. The term "national park" did not exist until Yellowstone. Ibid., 29-30. The Grand Canyon also became a national park in stages. The area came under Department of the Interior protection in 1897 and was designated a national monument in 1908.

20 Runte, Trains of Discovery, 52.

21 Moran remained effective as part of the Santa Fe advertising campaign. Edward P. Ripley, president of the Santa Fe, bought a Moran painting of the Grand Canyon, had it lithographed in color, and distributed thousands of copies in gilt frames to be hung in schools, hotels, railroad stations, and offices. Jim Marshall, Santa Fe: The Railroad That Built an Empire (New York: Random House, 1945): 287-88.

22 Robert Sterling Yard, "Economic Aspects of Our National Parks Policy," Scientific Monthly 16 (April 1923): 384-85, quoted in Runte, National Parks, 106.

23 Runte, National Parks, 162.

Copyright 2001 Dallas Museum of Art. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.

About the Author...

Eleanor Jones Harvey is the Curator of American Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. [see our article: Dr. Eleanor Jones Harvey Receives Appointment as Dallas Museum of Art's Curator of American Art (10/16/99)] In 1998 she organized the exhibition The Painted Sketch: American Impressions from Nature, 1830-1880. The catalogue for the exhibition, which was based on her dissertation, won the 1999 Henry Russell Hitchcock Award from The Victorian Society in America as the most significant contribution to 19th-century fine arts studies in the prior year. Her essay on "The Artistic Conquest of the Far North," appeared in Cosmos: From Romanticism to the Avant-garde, 1801-2001 (Montreal: Museum of Fine Arts, 1999), and she was co-author of The Dallas Museum of Art, Guide to the Collection (Dallas Museum of Art, 1997). Dr. Harvey came to the DMA from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where she was Assistant Curator of American Paintings. There she helped to organize The Lure of Italy: American Artists and the Italian Experience, 1760-1914, and contributed to the accompanying publication. Dr. Harvey earned a B.A. with distinction from the University of Virginia, and both M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in art history from Yale University. At the Dallas Museum of Art she curates exhibitions covering 18th through mid-twentieth century painting and sculpture in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.

Essay reprinted with permission of Dallas Museum of Art.

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