Thomas Moran’s paintings influenced Congress to establish the first national park


There is a land of fire. It is a place of hewn rock, boiling mud, sulfuric stench and otherworldly beauty. You may know it as part of America’s backyard. This amazing place is called Yellowstone National Park.

This year, Yellowstone celebrates its 150th anniversary as the first national park in the United States. And although it is one of the most popular parks in the world, it remains a place of rugged majesty. After the park was blanketed in deep snow for most of the year, this summer’s tourist season was nearly thwarted by massive flooding that downed trees, washed away bridges and destroyed roads.

After an effective reconstruction, the park is operational again in most areas. However, due to the upheaval and uncertainty, many people have canceled their travel plans to Yellowstone. The smaller crowd of visitors makes it a fantastic time to see a place like no other on earth.

“The Great Blue Spring of the Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park”, 1875, by Thomas Moran.
Chromolithography; 8.25 inches by 12.31 inches. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. (Public domain)

The whispered rumors that started it all

Yellowstone is as exciting today as it was historically. In the early years of our fledgling nation, strange tales came from grizzly bear trappers and Native American traders about a smoldering, restless land.

A few years after parting ways with the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806, mountaineer John Colter came upon an area of ​​fumaroles and hot springs not far from what later became the national park. The implausible stories he told left such an impression that there is now a part of Wyoming known as Colter’s Hell.

Although there was interest in further exploring this truly wild part of the West, some described the endeavor as so difficult that it was akin to suicide. Dangerous mountains, forests and wild beasts, heavy snowfalls, Native American skirmishes and, finally, the Civil War prevented Americans from further exploring the extraordinary lands near present-day Yellowstone.

It wasn’t until August 1871 that Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, led the first official scientific expedition to survey and explore the lands that would later become America’s first national park. .

The Hayden Expedition assembled a team which, in addition to support staff, included: a meteorologist, a zoologist, an ornithologist, a mineralogist, a topographer, an agricultural statistician and entomologist, two botanists, a photographer and the artist Thomas Moran.

Of these, Moran arguably made some of the most enduring contributions to the exploration effort. Largely thanks to Moran’s images, Congress and the American public were persuaded of the unique value of this extraordinary landscape. The Americans realized that it had to be preserved.

Epoch Times Photo
“Yellowstone Hot Springs”, 1872, by Thomas Moran. Oil on canvas; 28 inches by 42 inches. LACMA. (Public domain)

Draw nature stories

When the Hayden Expedition set out, America was a young nation still reeling from the effects of the Civil War. Photography was relatively new. The public relied on newspapers and printed images to keep abreast of developments in the world. Moran’s work was reproduced in the press and inspired readers and leaders to better appreciate the spectacular nature of the United States.

Perhaps you can imagine waiting impatiently, hardly believing the tales of mud volcanoes such as Dragon’s Mouth, which to this day can be seen bubbling and spitting, swallowing and spitting an almost constant stream of bubbling earth through a gorge cavernous roar. Modern explorers can feel grateful for the walks now laid out to navigate such captivating and treacherous scenes.

Castle Geyser, built like an oversized children’s castle on a beach, stands amidst a minefield of crackling geysers stretching as far as the eye can see. His fury is fascinating. What must early viewers of Moran’s sketch “The Castle Geyser” have thought as they gazed at the pictorial water column amidst colors barely seen in nature? Even Iceland’s geysers pale in comparison to the scale of thermal activity visible throughout the wonderfully eerie Yellowstone region.

Through Moran’s efforts and skill, the world has been given a humanized vision of spectacularly unknown lands.

Epoch Times Photo
“The Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park”, 1874, by Thomas Moran. Chromolithography; 8.25 inches by 12.5 inches. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. (Public domain)

The Life and Work of Thomas Moran

Every life is filled with opportunities. So it was, especially for early American explorers.

Moran was born in Bolton, England, in 1837, but died an American immigrant in Santa Barbara, California. The Moran family emigrated to Philadelphia when Thomas was 7 years old. The young Moran worked first as an apprentice to a wood engraver and then as an illustrator, where he was strongly influenced by the works of his older brother, Edward, and the British painter JMW Turner.

Epoch Times Photo
The young Moran was strongly influenced by the British painter JMW Turner. ‘Wreckers Coast of Northumberland’, circa 1834, by JMW Turner. Oil on canvas; 35.66 inches by 47.56 inches. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. (Public domain)

Moran worked hard, creating images for magazines and carving out some success as an artist. Not necessarily the most talented of 19th and 20th century artists, Moran nonetheless made a name for himself through his effort and courage. Venturing into the unknown, he faced enormous challenges by applying his artistic skills to uncharted scenes. It’s a classic story of American opportunity and courage.

Although Moran lived most of his career in New York City – a major center for the American artistic community at the time – he traveled west frequently, often as a railroad guest. He saw and painted Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, the Colorado River, and what later became Zion National Park. He gained notoriety by depicting pristine scenes of the West in paint.

Most of his paintings also admit a fascinating historical character. For example, the piece titled “The Great Hot Springs” features a view of several small figures in front of an array of splendid pools. Characters likely include Hayden, photographer William Jackson, Moran himself, and a Native American guide.

Epoch Times Photo
“Tower at Tower Falls, Yellowstone”, 1872, by Thomas Moran. Watercolor and gouache over graphite on blue paper; 14.25 inches by 10.36 inches. Florian Carr Fund. National Gallery of Art. (Public domain)

Moran included the presence of Native Americans as adventurers accompanying the Hayden Expedition not only in his paintings, but also in his journals. He once mentions a tribal member of the group who shot three of the five deer killed that day for food. The character from “The Great Hot Springs” may also have been the mysterious capped figure depicted in “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” a monumental painting he sold to Congress for $10,000, an unheard-of sum to the United States. era. This royalty secured Moran’s position as a renowned painter, and he repeated the prestigious feat with the sale of “Chasm of the Colorado”.

What Moran was selling was a tremendous vision of American adventure, spirit, and achievement. Today, Moran is not only famous for his interpretive views of the American West, but for all the attributes embodied in his work.

Epoch Times Photo
Moran has depicted natural wonders beyond Yellowstone. Here is a representation of the Grand Canyon. “Colorado Chasm”, 1837-1926, by Thomas Moran. Oil on canvas; 84.36 inches by 144.75 inches. US Department of Interior Museum. (Public domain)

Painting the American Spirit

Having recently returned from an all-too-brief but deeply awe-inspiring excursion in Yellowstone National Park, I can only imagine the courage it took to navigate our way through the formidable landscape with its shocking trappings.

Although my husband and I found ourselves lovely in the shelter of the Old Faithful Inn at night, during the day we still encountered six grizzly bears, including a mother with two cubs! We accidentally slipped on some scree just to be startled by boiling mud at the bottom, and ended up closer to the bison than we’d hoped. We watched in awe as geysers erupt and prismatic pools of bacteria seep out.

I sketched on paper and in my head, and marveled at the feat of hiking and hacking trails through such unexpected and untamed wilderness while carrying an easel or cleaning brushes. with turpentine, then needing to wash their hands. It seems to me that determination and awe form the basis of Moran’s paintings.

Moran produced over 1,500 oil paintings and 800 watercolors during his lifetime. Many were field sketches completed later in the studio. Once, when he could not accompany an expedition through the unexplored Grand Tetons, his fellow explorers thought of him so much that they named Mount Moran after him.

I got to see the Tetons this summer too. Between mountain lakes, bear claw marks etched into the trees, and wolves chasing moose, the Tetons provide a breathtaking backdrop for an excursion into the unique beauty of a great nation, much like Yellowstone.

In case you can’t make it out West this year, you can always get transported. Large paintings offer sights that open the eyes and the soul. America has been truly blessed. The American spirit and our unfettered West can still inspire art and awe.


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