14 June 2008

Aesthetic Geology: Thomas “Yellowstone” Moran

Posted by Jessica Ball

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872 (Image from Wikipedia)

My first impulse on seeing the latest Accretionary Wedge topic (Aesthetic Geology – Geology and Art) was to look through my books for a favorite volcano painting. There are quite a few, especially from the 19th century, when geology was becoming popular, and they’re almost always spectacular (as most images of eruptions are). But because this is the time of year I’m usually out in the field, I decided to concentrate on art that had its roots in the first explorations of the American West. Powell and Dutton’s expeditions have always been fascinating to me, but there were others that receive less acclaim, though they were no less important.

One of these was the 1871 expedition of the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories, led by geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden. The expedition included, in addition to scientists and frontiersmen, both a photographer and a painter. The painter was Thomas Moran, an English immigrant who had settled in New York City in the 1860s. He eventually became the chief illustrator for Scribner’s Monthly, during a time when all the monthlies – Harper’s, Atlantic Monthly, and Scribner’s – were competing with each other to report on frontier expeditions. In 1871 Scribner’s ran a story called “The Wonders of Yellowstone,” which Moran was assigned to illustrate.

(Image from American Visionaries: Thomas Moran, National Park Service)

As a result, Moran developed a desire to see Yellowstone for himself, and arranged to join the first government-sponsored survey of Yellowstone – Hayden’s 1871 expedition. The expedition departed in the summer of 1871, and over the course of several months Moran produced dozens of watercolor studies and field sketches that would serve as the basis for numerous oil paintings. He collaborated closely with William Henry Jackson, the expedition photographer, and many of his watercolors and sketches are mirrored in Jackson’s photographs of the expedition.

Thomas Moran, Liberty Cap and Clematis Gulch, 1871 (Yellowstone Digital Slide File)

William Henry Jackson, Liberty Cap, Mammoth Hot Springs, 1871 (Yellowstone Digital Slide File)

Moran’s field sketches, and the paintings he created from them, were the first color images of Yellowstone ever seen in the East, and did much to stimulate public interest in westward expansion. Soon after the expedition’s return, Ferdinand Hayden and others began promoting the idea that Yellowstone should be protected and preserved as a national park. Because no member of Congress had seen Yellowstone, Hayden and his colleagues brought Moran’s watercolors, along with the photographs taken by William Henry Jackson, to Capitol Hill.

Great Springs of the Firehole River, 1871 (Yellowstone Digital Slide File)

Their images were key in convincing the Congressional Committee assigned to the matter to establish Yellowstone as the first national park in March 1872, only seven months after the work on the Hayden Survey ended. Congress later purchased two of the oil paintings that Moran created from his sketches to hang in the U.S. Capitol: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) and The Chasm of the Colorado (1873). The powerful images in Moran’s paintings, of Yellowstone and elsewhere in the West, “fired the imagination and helped inspire Congress to establish the National Park System in 1916” (NPS).

Thomas Moran may be considered a member of the Hudson River School of painting, but his colorful landscapes and romantic depictions of lands in the West stepped far beyond the boundaries of many of his contemporaries. Because of his work’s influence on Congress, he has been called the “Father of the National Park System”, and Corps of Engineers Captain Hiram M. Chittenden wrote that Moran’s paintings (and Jackson’s photographs) “did a work which no other agency could do and doubtless convinced everyone who saw them that the regions where such wonders existed should be preserved to the people forever.”

“…Yellowstone retains its hold upon my imagination with a vividness of of yesterday…The impression then made upon me by the stupendous and remarkable manifestations of nature’s forces will remain with me as long as memory lasts.” — Thomas Moran

Thomas Moran’s work impresses me not only for its beauty, but because he, a man who had never ridden a horse and camped only once in his life, took it upon himself to travel to a place almost wholly unexplored in order to share its wonders with his adopted country. I’ve not yet visited Yellowstone, but I hope that when I do, I’ll be able to see it with the same reverent and unjaded vision that Moran brought to his art.


Thomas Moran (National Gallery of Art)

American Visionaries: Thomas Moran (National Park Service)

Yellowstone Digital Slide File: Moran works and other art (National Park Service)

Thomas Moran and the American Landscape (Joshua Johns, University of Virginia)