Thomas Moran was thirty-four years old when he first traveled West to Yellowstone with F. V. Hayden’s U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories of 1871. Two years later, he ventured to the Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell’s government survey and in 1874, he was again with Hayden in Colorado to sketch the Mountain of the Holy Cross. Those trips were the foundation for the rest of Moran’s career; the subject matter he drew from his field sketches occupied him until his death in 1926. He identified so closely with the West that he adopted the nickname, Tom “Yellowstone” Moran.
The work he produced from his survey experiences brought him fame and fortune enabling him to travel West many times during his long life. The monumental canvases he painted, measuring seven feet high, convey a great deal about America in the late nineteenth century. His images present, besides the grandeur of nature, the conflicts in society to publicize and exploit the West.
Thomas Moran was born in 1837, in Bolton, England. His family immigrated to America settling in Philadelphia. At sixteen, he apprenticed with a wood engraving firm and began to paint and draw seriously. Moran was hired as an illustrator for Scribner’s Monthly and by the 1860’s became the chief illustrator for the magazine.
Thomas Moran was less interested in exactly replicating the wonders of nature, than in capturing the overall impression on the spirit. He stated, “I place no value upon literal transcriptions of Nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are towards idealization.” He visited London to see the works of the painter, J.M.W. Turner and was greatly influenced by Turner’s romantic approach to landscape painting.
Determined to make his way West, Moran solicited financial support from Scribner’s Monthly and Jay Cooke, the rail magnet to join Hayden’s 1871 survey to the Yellowstone Territories. Hayden was happy to have Moran join his expedition because of the publicity the survey would receive from Scribner’s and the railroad promotions. The exquisite paintings and stunning photographs Moran and Jackson created on this expedition were instrumental in persuading Congress to make Yellowstone America’s first National Park in 1872.
The same year Moran declined the invitation of all four geological surveys in preference of pursuing a commission by D. Appleton and Company to create engravings for Picturesque America. He illustrated four chapters from photographs and sketches acquired from the four surveys including the sketches of William Henry Holmes and photographs of William Henry Jackson. He again accompanied the expedition of 1874 to Mount of the Holy Cross which gave Moran authority as interpreter of the Rocky Mountains.
After returning from Major Powell’s Survey of the Grand Canyon in 1874, Moran painted his two most famous works, “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” and “The Chasm of the Colorado.” These epic paintings were purchased by Congress, for the unheard of sum of ten thousand dollars each, to be displayed in the Capitol.
In making remote and mysterious regions accessible to the American public through his paintings, drawings and illustrations, he made the West an indelible part of the American consciousness.