The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran

This post begins a series on the legacy of Yellowstone images left by Thomas Moran. Moran accompanied the famous 1871 Hayden Expedition to the area that became Yellowstone National Park a year later. He did studies and water color sketches of more than thirty sights.

Later he produced dramatic oil paintings like “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.” The U.S. Congress purchased this twelve-by-seven-foot painting and hung it in the U.S. Capital. It’s now on view at the Smithsonian. 

Images by Moran (along with photographs by William Henry Jackson) were distributed to members of the U.S. Congress before the vote to make Yellowstone the world’s first national park.  While Moran’s images are credited with stimulating the affirmative vote, he didn’t consider himself a documentarian. Here’s Moran’s description of his philosophy of art.

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Thomas Moran

I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization. Of course, all art must come through Nature: I do not mean to depreciate Nature or naturalism; but I believe that a place, as a place, has no value in itself for the artist only so far as it furnishes the material from which to construct a picture.

Topography in art is valueless. The motive or incentive of my ‘ Grand Canon of the Yellowstone’ was the gorgeous display of color that impressed itself upon me. Probably no scenery in the world presents such a combination. The forms are extremely wonderful and pictorial, and, while I desired to tell truly of Nature, I did not wish to realize the scene literally, but to preserve and to convey its true impression.

Every form introduced into the picture is within view from a given point, but the relations of the separate parts to one another are not always preserved. For instance, the precipitous rocks on the right were really at my back when I stood at that point, yet in their present position they are strictly true to pictorial Nature; and so correct is the whole representation that every member of the expedition with which I was connected declared, when he saw the painting, that he knew the exact spot which had been reproduced.

My aim was to bring before the public the character of that region. The rocks in the foreground are so carefully drawn that a geologist could determine their precise nature. I treated them so in order to serve my purpose. In another work, ‘The Mountain of the Holy Cross,’ the foreground is intensely realistic also: its granite rocks are realized to the farthest point that I could carry them; and the idealization of the scene consists in the combination and arrangement of the various objects in it. At the same time, the combination is based upon the characteristics of the place.

My purpose was to convey a true impression of the region; and as for the elaborated rocks, I elaborated them out of pure love for rocks. I have studied rocks carefully, and I like to represent them.”

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Thomas Moran quotation from G. W. Sheldon, American Painters: With Eighty-Three Examples of Their Work Engraved on Wood. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1879. pages 125-126.

— Moran portrait is a detail from a Wikipedia Commons photo.

— You might also enjoy “Thomas Moran Painted His Impression of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.”

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