The legacy of painter Thomas Moran
By Todd Wilkinson EBS ENVIRONMENTAL COLUMNIST
The National Park Service once dubbed Thomas Moran the “father of Yellowstone,” but he has never stood accused of having a charismatic way with words.
In 1871, during his visit to the Yellowstone as a member of the Hayden Expedition, the legendary Romantic painter scratched these underwhelming entries into his journal over the course of five summer days. Few would mistake them for inspired postcard prose.
July 27, 1871: “Left Tower Falls. Halted at noon on Mt. Washburne [sic]. Arrived at Yellowstone falls in the evening.”
July 28: “Sketching & photographing about the Falls.”
July 29: “photographing & sketching around the Falls & Canon [sic].”
July 30: “still at the Falls.”
July 31: “Left the falls reached crater Hill. large Sulphur spring & many mud springs left at noon & camped at the mud volcano.”
As spare notations, these entries offer us little hint of the aesthetic supernova burning in Moran’s mind on these same days as he scrambled precariously into the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone with photographer William Henry Jackson at his side.
Nor do they provide justice to Moran’s effusive response to geography that inspired, arguably, his greatest series of masterworks.
Nor do they foretell the impact his quick-brush watercolor sketches, and later easel paintings would have in convincing U.S. Congress to chart a revolutionary course for conservation in America—preventing a landscape from being overrun by the kind of development being promoted as part of “Manifest Destiny.”
If you go to the Albright Visitor Center at Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone’s official headquarters, it’s well worth the few minutes to look at some of the artifacts from Moran’s and Jackson’s visual chronicles of Yellowstone just prior to the park’s official birth in 1872.
Several Moran paintings, in fact, are part of the historical archives of both Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks. You can also find Morans at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. (including the original panoramic that awed members of Congress) and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Moran’s pieces that grew out of his trip to the park were more fidel to landscape and filled with less artistic embellishment than the etchings, created sight unseen and based upon Nathanial Landford’s descriptions of the park interior published in Scribner’s magazine.
Still, all of Moran’s portrayals convey an almost fairy tale quality.
“We pass with rapid transition from one remarkable vision to another, each unique of its kind and surpassing all others in the known world,” Hayden wrote. “The intelligent American will one day point on the map to this remarkable district with the conscious pride that it has not its parallel on the face of the globe. Why will not Congress at once pass a law setting it apart as a great public park for all time to come, as has been done with that not more remarkable wonder, the Yosemite Valley?”
Of all the works, it was the various portrayals of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and its focal point, the Lower Falls, that inspired action. Upon Moran’s return to the East Coast, he gathered the watercolors and pencil drawings around him and went to work on a mural-sized oil, seven feet high and 12 feet across, that speaks to the heroic challenge he embraced.
Taking two months to complete, it left those who were treated to sneak previews stunned while it came together. After the piece was shown before members of Congress, Hayden dropped a note in the mail to Moran from Montana, according to Park Service historians. Hayden stated, “There is no doubt that your reputation is made.”
Of course we cannot and should not ignore the truth that the lands, which today encompass Yellowstone, were homelands, hunting grounds and travel corridors for a number of indigenous Nations. The creation of the park caused a long period of detachment for which reconnection is in order.
“Besides the geysers and wildlife and other natural wonders that Yellowstone is known for, few realize that in our vaults [in Yellowstone] is a body of original Moran paintings and personal effects more substantial than the Morans displayed at the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is recognized internationally for its Moran collection,” retired Yellowstone historian Lee Whittlesey once told me in a conversation.
What’s exciting about some of the less-viewed Moran gems, plainted plein air, is that they reflect his artistic inspiration that happened in the moment. Adam Duncan Harris, senior curator at the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, which once hosted a notable exhibition of Morans, says art played a powerful role in the foundation of preserving nature for its own sake.
“It is exhilarating that, as art, these Morans help to tell the story of history and their pivotal role in germinating the seeds of an idea that has spread around the world,” Harris said.
Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and is a correspondent for National Geographic. He’s also the author of the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399.