Thomas Moran (1837-1926)

Thomas Moran (1837-1926)

Born in 1837, Thomas Moran emigrated from England with his parents and five siblings at the age of seven, settling in Philadelphia. His brother Edward, the eldest of the Moran siblings and eight years older than Thomas, broke from his family’s ancestral weaving trade to pursue a career in the fine arts, making his debut at a Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition in 1854.

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Thomas later credited Edward’s courage to follow his passion with giving him and his brothers Peter and John the impetus to do the same: “It is scarcely probable that any of us would have been painters had it not been for Edward's encouragement and assistance. Such ability as we had was doubtless latent in us, but he gave us our bent, and such successes as we have attained, we primarily owe to him.”[1] While Edward eventually focused on seascapes and Thomas on landscapes, Peter found his muse in animal painting and John became a talented photographer.

At sixteen, Thomas was apprenticed to an engraver, but soon trained himself in watercolors and took part in his first exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy in 1856. He quickly progressed to oils and in 1861 was elected an Academician, joining Edward who was bestowed the honor one year earlier. Neither Edward nor Thomas had formal training in a school setting, but they were each inspired by the work and professional advice of fellow emigrant artists Paul Weber and James Hamilton; they prescribed to the Ruskinian endorsement of the European and American Pre-Raphaelites; they regularly visited exhibitions at the Academy and other venues; and they counted as a friend and mentor the engraver John Sartain, who likely allowed them to study the American and European prints he kept in his shop. Of particular fascination to both Morans was the imagery and technique of J. M. W. Turner, which they had only seen reproduced as illustrations and engravings, and in 1862 they returned to England for several months in order to appreciate the master’s work firsthand. Thomas spent several weeks in London’s National Gallery copying Turner’s paintings to grasp his color palette, and both brothers discovered their mentor’s tendency of using artistic license, of arranging elements seen in a landscape in order to make his canvases more visually compelling. The latter would come to the fore in Thomas’ renditions of the American West begun in the 1870s; while the surveyors he accompanied on various early trips were required to accurately record the scenery before them, Thomas’ studio paintings focused on interpreting and expressing the grandeur of the region for a collecting public eager to experience the untamed beauty of their country.  

In 1863, years before his trips West, Thomas Moran was married to Mary Nimmo, a talented artist in her own right who specialized in etching and who assisted her husband with the business-side of his profession while he focused on painting. He continued to exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy and other local venues, explored the Pennsylvania countryside on sketching trips, and completed illustrations for publications such as The Aldine. A second trip abroad from June 1866 to May 1867, this time accompanied by Mary and their young son Paul, found Moran exploring France and Italy while continuing to submit works for exhibition in Philadelphia. He met Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot at his studio in Paris, exhibited paintings he brought with him from America at both the Exposition Universelle and the Salon, and spent February and March of 1867 sketching within Rome proper as well as among the surrounding countryside. The family returned to America in May of 1867, and Moran completed several paintings based on his experiences abroad.

Back in Philadelphia, Moran painted scenes based on his European travels, on various literary sources, as well as on sketches made while exploring the bucolic Pennsylvanian countryside, and exhibited these canvases in both Philadelphia and New York. He also resumed his illustration work and was commissioned by Scribner’s to finesse the field drawings made by another artist which would accompany an article on the Yellowstone region, a project that led to an entirely new trajectory in his career. Inspired by the descriptions of what would eventually become America’s first national park, Moran was eager to see it for himself and joined Frederick V. Hayden’s survey in the summer of 1871, thanks partially to the financial support of the Northern Pacific Railroad to which he promised several promotional watercolors. The influence of Turner and Moran’s affinity for the romantic would serve the artist well on his many trips West, the first of which found him in Green River, Wyoming, before meeting Hayden’s group in Montana. The rainbow-colored buttes towering over the town of Green River had not yet been captured widely by artists, thus Moran gave them special favor and revisited this subject for decades. After reaching Montana and departing south again with Hayden’s group for Yellowstone, Moran was awestruck by the unspoiled scenery and rugged beauty he encountered, taking copious notes in his journal and completing numerous sketches to reference for future paintings. When he returned East, he moved his family to Newark, New Jersey, and began working on a monumental canvas, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which firmly cemented Moran’s reputation as a leading painter of the American West. The painting was displayed in Washington, DC, in May of 1872, two months after a bill was passed establishing Yellowstone as America’s first national park, and was later purchased by Congress for $10,000.

In 1873, Moran made his second trip West in the company of a geological survey, this time to Arizona’s Grand Canyon, and the sketches he made on this venture resulted in numerous paintings, including another large work called Chasm of the Colorado. It was purchased by Congress as a pendant to the Yellowstone picture, and Louis Prang & Co. later created chromolithographs of a group of the artist’s landscapes for wider circulation, thereby cementing Moran’s place at the pinnacle of western painting.

While additional trips West in the ensuing years to sites far and wide provided enough imagery for a career’s worth of canvases, Moran also became known later in his career for his paintings of Venice, Italy, which he first visited in the spring of 1886. This was followed by a second trip a few years later, and the resulting paintings sold well when shown at the National Academy of Design and other venues. The collecting public responded favorably to Moran’s poetic transcriptions of the historic city, rendered with dazzling color and sparkling light.   

Moran had moved to New York City by 1881, and three years later completed a studio-cottage in East Hampton, a location that provided another source of paintable material for the indefatigable artist who maintained a productive painting and exhibition schedule well into his eighties. In 1899, Mary Nimmo Moran passed away at East Hampton, and the following summer Moran and his daughter Ruth made the artist’s last trip to Yellowstone, the park that helped launch his career on a national and international stage. He continued traveling to other western sites, and abroad to Europe, sketching everywhere he went, and began spending the colder months of the year in Santa Barbara, California, in the late 1910s, where he passed away in August of 1926. A memorial exhibition of his work was held at Milch Galleries in New York in December.

[1] Coleman, Hugh W. “Passing of a Famous Artist—Edward Moran” Brush and Pencil, (July 1901), pp. 188-192.

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