THOMAS MORAN–YELLOWSTONE’S FIRST ARTIST

In today’s climate of controversy over federal funding of the arts, it is difficult to imagine that, 125 years ago, Congress was persuaded by art to take the bold step of establishing the world’s first national park. But, the pencil and watercolor field sketches of the Yellowstone area by Thomas Moran, a young artist from Philadelphia, so captured the imagination of members of Congress that they were inspired to do just that.

Moran’s interest in the area that would become Yellowstone National Park was piqued when he was commissioned in 1870 to illustrate Nathaniel P. Langford’s magazine article, “The Wonders of the Yellowstone”–an assignment he boldly accepted without benefit of having seen the place himself. After the job was done, Moran determined that he must travel to the Yellowstone area to see it for himself. An 1871 U.S. Geological Survey expedition led by fellow Philadelphian Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden provided the opportunity.

Survey teams of that era often included artists and photographers. In the days before color photography, the artist could provide an added dimension to the documentation necessary for a successful expedition. Luckily, the Hayden Survey boasted the magical combination of artist Moran and photographer William Henry Jackson. The two collaborated in selecting views and creating the images that brought the near-mythical Yellowstone region to life for the politicians whose support was crucial in fashioning the area into something for which there was no precedent and few comparable models: a national park.

While the 34-year old Moran was a respected painter, engraver, and illustrator, he had never before ridden a horse, had camped but once, and was unaccustomed to the sorts of greasy foods that made up the usual camp fare. But, determined to bear whatever was required to paint the Yellowstone region, Moran impressed and earned the respect of the thirty-some members of the survey with his adaptability, tirelessness, and courage.

Between July 22 and August 9, Moran travelled through what would become Yellowstone National Park, sketching the Gardner River; Mammoth Hot Springs and LibertyCap; Tower Fall; the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone with its dramatic yellow, orange, and red walls and its impressive Upper and Lower Falls; Yellowstone Lake; Crystal Creek; Firehole River; the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins; and other scenes. While many visitors to Yellowstone are most captivated by the geysers and other thermal features and wildlife, Moran was clearly most struck by the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the Tower Fall area. Moran and Jackson devoted more time to the Grand Canyon (including the place now known as “Artist Point”) than anywhere else in Yellowstone–four days–and Jackson later wrote that “Moran’s enthusiasm was greater here than anywhere else.”

When Dr. Hayden and his survey party returned to Washington, he circulated Moran’s sketches and Jackson’s photographs through the halls of Congress, providing the final push needed by a legislature already excited by the Moran watercolors and woodblock designs used to illustrate survey reports. Doubts about the vaunted wonders of the Yellowstone region vanished in the face of this tangible proof. Jackson admitted that, as Congress considered creating the park over the winter of 1871-1872, the watercolors and photographs made during the survey “were the most important exhibits brought before the [Congressional] Committee.” The “wonderful coloring” of Moran’s sketches, he wrote, made all the difference. A mere seven months after Moran’s work on the Hayden Survey ended–an astoundingly short period of time by today’s standards–Yellowstone National Park was a reality.

Three months later, Moran produced a monumental 7′ x 12′ panoramic, “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” which was purchased by the Congress for display in the Senate lobby, causing a noted art critic to call it “the only good picture to be found in the Capitol.” By this time, friends had begun to call the artist “Tom ‘Yellowstone’ Moran,” and Moran had begun incorporating a “Y” into his initials when signing his works!

Today, Yellowstone National Park is privileged to own 21 of the sketches Moran produced while in the Yellowstone area; two of the artist’s sketchbooks, filled with rough drawings and notations; two charcoal drawings; tools he used in his work, including brushes and palette knives; some personal effects; the only diary he kept during his travels to Yellowstone; and, his only attempt at an autobiography.

The first retrospective exhibition of the work of Thomas Moran will open September 28 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The exhibition will include, among many other works, twelve of Moran’s watercolors from Yellowstone National Park’s collection, the panoramic “Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (now owned by the Department of the Interior), and photographs by William Henry Jackson from Yellowstone National Park’s photograph archives. After it closes at the National Gallery of Art on January 11, 1998, the exhibition will travel to the Thomas Gilcrease Museum in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where it will be on view from February 8 through May 10, 1998. The exhibit will conclude at the Seattle Art Museum, where it can be seen from June 19 through August 30, 1998.

By the time Moran died in 1926, he had painted a dozen other areas that would become national parks or monuments in the National Park System. But Yellowstone, Moran himself claimed, was “his love” and is a land whose story will forever be intertwined with that of the man who first painted it, a little more than 125 years ago.

Related Yellowstone Net Pages