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The Poetry of Place: Works on Paper by Thomas Moran from the Gilcrease Museum

February 9, 2001 - May 8, 2001

 

A major exhibition of the watercolors, sketches, and prints of Thomas Moran (1837­1926), tracking his progress both as an artist and as an artist-explorer in search of new landscapes, The Poetry of Place: Works on Paper by Thomas Moran from the Gilcrease Museum opens to the public on February 9, 2001, at The Frick Art & Historical Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The exhibition features Moran's sketches from nature, complemented by examples of his studio work, creating an intimate portrait of the artist and demonstrating his belief in the inherent poetry of landscape.  On view at the Frick through May 8, 2001, the exhibition travels to the Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, where it will open on June 30, 2001. (left: Thomas Moran, Bridge over the Schuylkill, Philadelphia, April 15, 1856, graphite, watercolor, and white gouache on wove paper, 6 1/2 x 11 5/8 inches)

The exhibition comprises 81 works on paper spanning the years 1856 through 1900.  Also  included is the oil painting, Vera Cruz (1885).  The exhibition is drawn in its entirety from the Gilcrease Museum, which, since purchasing the contents of the artist's studio from his daughter, Ruth Moran, in the late 1940s, has been the largest repository of works by Moran in the world. (left: Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872, From Blackmore Suite (no. 10), watercolor on wove paper, 11 1/4 x 8 inches)

Guest curators Donna Gustafson, chief curator of exhibitions at the AFA, and Anne Morand, curator of art at the Gilcrease Museum, arranged the works chronologically, charting the artist's many journeys throughout the United States, Europe, and Mexico, and demonstrating his wide-ranging interests.  While celebrated as one of the finest chroniclers of the American West, Moran strove to incorporate his personal experience of landscape into his paintings, relying on drawings he created in the field to capture the essence of any given scene.  As Gustafson writes in her essay accompanying the exhibition, "The Poetry of Place focuses on Moran as an artist for whom the poetry of a landscape, or as Moran would say, the 'impression' that a landscape induced, was more compelling than any topographical accuracy."

Born in Bolton, England, Thomas Moran moved to Philadelphia as a child.  Unlike many American artists of his time, Moran did not pursue an academic course of study in Europe; instead, after a short apprenticeship with an engraving firm he began his career in the Philadelphia studio of his elder brother, the landscape painter Edward Moran. While studying prints and books containing reproductions of the Old Masters, Moran came to admire the English romantic painter J. M. W. Turner, and, in 1862, he traveled to England, the first of his many trips to Europe, to study that artist's paintings. (left: Thomas Moran, The Upper Falls of the Yellowstone, 1872, From Blackmore Suite (no. 12), watercolor on wove paper, 10 1/4 x 8 1/8 inches)

In the summer of 1871, upon receiving a commission from Scribner's Magazine to enhance some poorly drawn illustrations of Yellowstone, Moran became inspired to travel to the West.  He accompanied Ferdinand V. Hayden's government-sponsored scientific expedition to the Yellowstone region in the summer of 1871, where he executed First Sketch Made in the West at Green River, Wyoming (1871), a work informed by his study of Turner's soft, yet vibrant palette and his reaction to this extraordinary place.

The field sketches he made of the Yellowstone region during his visit became the first color images of Yellowstone to be seen in the East and were instrumental in persuading members of Congress to draft legislation that established it as the first national park.  Congress purchased Moran's majestic painting Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), the first painting to hang in the nation's Capitol, approximately a year later. (left: Thomas Moran, Zion Valley, 1873, watercolor on wove paper, 8 1/2 x 6 inches)

The success of the sketches from Yellowstone became a turning point in Moran's career, elevating his reputation and leading to many commissions, such as the "Blackmore Watercolors" - a series of 16 watercolors for the wealthy English industrialist William Blackmore.  Several of these dramatic works, including The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) and The Upper Falls of the Yellowstone (1872), are included in the exhibition.

Moran's fascination with the landscapes of the American West was reinforced by his first trip to the Grand Canyon in 1873.  A popular destination for tourists at the time, the Grand Canyon held as much commercial interest for Moran as it did aesthetic appeal, and, after 1892, he would return nearly every year.  In the watercolor The Grand Canyon of the Colorado (1892), Moran reveals his ability to create an enormous visual space in a small format.  Another favorite sketching place for Moran was East Hampton, Long Island.  In the etching A Wreck, Montauk (1886), Moran's interest in the power of the sea is illustrated.

As the demand for images of the American West declined, Moran traveled to Mexico and Cuba in 1883 and to Italy in 1885.  These locales proved particularly inspiring in terms of subject matter and the volume of field sketches produced.  Venice, in particular, proved to be an enduring subject through the remainder of his career. (left: Thomas Moran, Pass at Glencoe Scotland, 1882, watercolor on paper, 20 x 30 inches)

In her introduction in the exhibition catalogue, Morand states, "The sketches offer an opportunity for a deeper understanding of Moran - the tremendous range of his travel as he sought new subjects, the aspects of the natural world that engaged him, and the remarkable extent of his technical development."

The illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition features an essay by Donna Gustafson focusing on Moran who, as a painter of landscapes, enthusiastically embraced new opportunities made available by the industrial revolution, including patronage of the railroad and various expedition organizers, romantic nostalgia for unspoiled terrain, and the burgeoning interest in both traveling and armchair tourism.  An introduction by Anne Morand, curator of art at the Gilcrease Museum, focuses on the Gilcrease's extensive Moran collection, and the importance of Moran's field sketches in relation to his larger oeuvre.  Published by the AFA in softcover; 64 pages; approximately 80 color plates and 5 black-and-white comparative illustrations. (left: Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, May 29, 1892, graphite and watercolor on wove paper, 11 1/2 x 24 1/2 inches)

The exhibition is organized by the American Federation of Arts and the Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, OK.

The American Federation of Arts (AFA), a not-for-profit organization, develops and travels art exhibitions and provides educational, professional, and technical support programs developed in collaboration with the museum community. Established by an act of Congress in 1909, it is the oldest and most comprehensive organization of its kind, serving 550 museum members. Secretary of State Elihu Root outlined AFA's mission in an address to the National Academy of the Arts: to enrich the public's experience and understanding of art, primarily by taking original works "on tour to the hinterlands of the United States." Since its creation over 90 years ago, the AFA has organized over 1,000 exhibitions that have traveled to hundreds of art museums and galleries across North America. Today, the AFA continues to explore new opportunities to cultivate fertile ground for the broadest dissemination and appreciation of the visual arts.

AFA curators and registrars meet biannually with a standing committee of the AFA's board of trustees--comprising trustees, eminent art historians, and directors and chief curators of art museums--to present ideas for future exhibitions. This roundtable method ensures a diverse and far-reaching exhibition program that reflects the highest academic standards while supporting the AFA's founding mission and goals.

 

Excerpt from essay by Donna Gustafson in the illustrated catalogue accompanying the exhibition

 

For artists like Moran who searched for the sublime and found themselves confronted with landscapes that were far outside the parameters of experience - "as wild as the one we see in dreams" - the difficulty lay in finding visual language to provide viewers back home with images that could be accepted as authentic.25 Moran's ability to translate extraordinary landscape into pictures perceived as both truthful and poetic was an important element in his emergence as a significant American artist. While he was not the first artist to draw Yellowstone and the relatively unknown territories of the American West, he was the most successful, and his paintings, sketches, and illustrations were immediately acclaimed as the standard by which all other artist's works were measured.26

The success of the Yellowstone sketches and Moran's enormous canvas The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone ..., which was sold in 1872 to the United States Congress for ten thousand dollars, elevated Moran's reputation considerably and led to many commissions and invitations to join other survey teams. Turning down Hayden's invitation to join him on another expedition, Moran accompanied John Wesley Powell to the Grand Canyon in 1873 and also traveled throughout Zion National Park. ... After the trip to the Grand Canyon, he produced The Chasm of the Colorado. Planned as a pendant to the great Yellowstone picture and sold to the Congress soon after, this work sealed his reputation as the painter of the West. The Grand Canyon was to become a favorite subject while he returned to Yellowstone only once,
in 1892 ..., he returned to the Grand Canyon nearly every year after 1892. An arrangement with the Santa Fe Railroad gave him free passage west and, after 1901, lodging at: the El Tovar Hotel on the south rim in exchange for rights to reproduce a painting of the canyon. Moran's work was used by the railroad to illustrate travel brochures, and his painting The Grand Canyon of the Colorado (1892-1908; Philadelphia Museum of Art) hung for several years in the hotel. His reputation as a landscape artist in search of the sublime had been set alight by Yellowstone; it was now fanned by the various commercial interests that sought to make the Grand Canyon a destination for tourists
.27

In 1883, Moran traveled to Havana and throughout Mexico, possibly on a commission from the Mexican National Railroad. In a letter to his wife, he described the Mexican city of Vera Cruz as "another pictorial place like Venice."28 Neither Moran nor his wife had been to Venice, but because both had experienced the city through the paintings of Turner, the poetry of Byron, and the descriptive essays of Ruskin,29 each believed that: the other knew what was meant by the comparison. Moran was clearly inspired, producing more field sketches on this trip to Mexico (January-March 1883) than at any other time.... The images, many of them glowing with color and detail, are among the most beautiful sketches that he produced on any of his trips.

Among the paintings that resulted from this trip is a view of the Castle of San Juan d'Ulloa beneath a setting sun..., which also served as the subject of an etching.... The painting was so like one of Turner.s images of Venice that it was mistakenly titled in various publications as Venetian Seaport.

By 1885 Moran had established his reputation as a landscape painter. Leaving illustrative work behind, he focused his energies on painting, and as the demand for images of the American West declined, he sought a new subject. Venice, already established by American painters as a popular subject, was his destination. Upon his arrival in 1886, he found a subject as inspiring to him as the American West, and over the remaining course of his career he painted as many if not more images of the city than any other American painter.... While his choice of subject was driven in part by economic considerations, the charms of Venice would also have appealed directly to his aesthetic interests and poetic temperament. He made his second trip to Venice in 1890 in the company of his wife. Together they traveled throughout the city in an antique, extravagantly carved gondola said to have belonged to Robert Browning.30 The experience gave Moran so vivid an impression of the city that he was able to continue to create Venetian views for the remainder of his career.
Before leaving Venice to return home to East Hampton, he purchased the gondola of which he later wrote, "I love to think that Browning may have conceived his dramatic poem 'In a Gondola,' while being lazily propelled. . . through the close side-lagoons of the ancient city."
31 Upon arrival in East Hampton, Moran set the Venetian antique in the pond on his property and entertained guests with short excursions.

In 1903, an interview with Moran, who was now one of the grand old men of American landscape painting, was published in the American art journal Brush and Pencil.32 In it, Moran returns to the theme of his youth: that successful painting is the result of the artist's study of nature (knowledge) combined with the poetic ability of the artist. Concluding that "the man must exhibit himself in his pictures," Moran reaffirmed the importance of the artist's sensitivity to landscape, for without the ability to experience a landscape in all its profundity an artist was simply documenting natural features. Throughout his career, Moran strove to incorporate his personal experience of landscape into his paintings and prints. To do so, he depended on the drawings that he created in the field under the initial spell of the landscape and his prodigious memory. His remarkable ability to capture his impressions provided others with the opportunity to see the world through his eyes and to appreciate the sublime and infinitely varied beauties of the natural world.

Footnotes to the essay excerpted above.

Donna Gustafson has been chief curator of exhibitions at the AFA since mid-1999, with curated exhibitions traveling to museums throughout the United States. She served in other curatorial positions at AFA prior to appointment as chief curator, and before that as NEA Curatorial Intern at The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum. She has taught art history at Rutgers University since 1985 and is a PhD candidate in Art History at Rutgers. Ms. Gustafson has written numerous catalogues, reviews and articles.

Photos of artwork courtesy of the American Federation of Arts

 

Editor's note:

Please click on thumbnail images bordered by a red line to see enlargements.

RL readers may also enjoy an image of Yellowstone Falls from the TFAO photo library

For further biographical information on selected artists cited above please see America's Distinguished Artists, a national registry of historic artists.

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