Today in History

Today in History: February 12

Thomas Moran, Painter

Thomas Moran, half length portrait
Thomas Moran,
Napoleon Sarony, photographer, circa 1890-96.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

February 12 marks the birth of painter Thomas Moran (1837-1926).* His depictions of Western landscapes inspired Americans to conserve and cherish spectacular wilderness areas as part of their national heritage.

In the summer of 1871, Moran joined the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories. Headed by Ferdinand V. Hayden, this scientific exploration of lands along the Yellowstone River in northwestern Wyoming and southeastern Montana included a painter and a photographer. Visual documentation not only served to verify textual reports but also stimulated public interest.

Image of Moran painting
The Great Blue Spring of the Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone,
chromolithograph of a painting by Thomas Moran,
L. Prang & Co., c1856.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Collaborating closely with William Henry Jackson, the expedition photographer, Moran took extensive notes and made numerous watercolor sketches of sulphur fields, hot springs, geysers, waterfalls, and evergreen mountain peaks. Returning East, Hayden  displayed many of Moran's sketches and Jackson's photographs in Washington, D.C

These images helped convince Congress to set aside the Yellowstone area as a national park. Legislation establishing the park took effect March 1, 1872. Congress later purchased two of Moran's panoramic landscapes to embellish the U.S. Capitol: The Grand Canñ of the Yellowstone (1872) and The Chasm of the Colorado (1873-74).

Image of Moran painting
The Tower of Tower Falls, Yellowstone,
chromolithograph of a painting by Thomas Moran,
L. Prang & Co., c1875.
The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Moran continued to travel and paint in the West. Although Scribner's, Harper's Weekly, and other influential magazines published black-and-white engravings of  his art, Moran’s paintings of wilderness spectacles attracted the widest acclaim. Beginning in  1874, Thomas "Yellowstone" Moran (as he sometimes signed his name) created a series of watercolors that were published as chromolithographs by L. Prang and Company in 1876. Louis Prang was a pioneer in the full-color reproduction of American art; his chromolithographs of Moran's paintings added a new dimension to public appreciation of Western scenic beauty.

Moran was less interested in exactly replicating the marvels of nature than in capturing their overall impression on the human spirit. In this, he was deeply influenced by the British painter J.M.W. Turner, whose works he copied and studied in his youth; and by Turner’s champion, the British critic John Ruskin, who expressed admiration for Moran’s art.

* Moran gave his birthdate as January 12, but biographer Thurman Wilkins recently discovered the correct date on Moran’s birth certificate.

Image of Edward Moran Painting
Brush Burning,
photograph of a painting by Edward Moran, circa 1900-1912.
Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920

Two of Moran's brothers also were painters. Edward, known mostly for his maritime paintings, was Thomas's principal mentor. This photograph of a painting relies on yellow and brown hues similar to those in Thomas Moran's Western landscapes.