The National Park Paintings of Thomas Moran

 

“His paintings produced on this and other expeditions became central to shaping the definition of nature that inspired 19th-century scenic preservation movements.” -National Park Service

Thomas Moran’s propensity for exploration and adventure served him well during his time on the westward surveying trip led by Ferdinand V. Hayden in 1871. The geography and overwhelming scale of the Western American landscape were relatively unknown to most Americans in the mid-19th century – a time before many modern state boundaries and urban sprawl.

During the 1870s, much of the American West was still a pristine wilderness, filled with natural wonder and perilous challenges. Moran would join a series of survey expeditions throughout the region in this period, and his first visits to the Utah and Colorado Territories inspired Theodore Roosevelt and others to preserve this landscape “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People,” as it is described in the Organic Act of 1872.

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    Photographs from the 1871 Hayden Expedition (from left:) Standing on Travertine Formation of Mammoth Hot Springs; Thomas Moran on Mammoth Terraces. Photographs by William Henry Jackson
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    (from left): Thomas Moran, “The Great White Throne, Zion” (1901); Thomas Moran, “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1893-1901), Smithsonian American Art Museum

The National Park Service’s formal founding in 1916 was the culmination of work inspired by the first impressions of the American landscape sent back to Washington from the early survey trips. Moran’s artistic vision and idealized interpretations of the American landscape, inspired by his numerous trips Westward, are considered national treasures. Numerous sketches, watercolors, and preparatory works created en plein air served as source material for the works on canvas, ranging widely in scale and subject.  

The Great White Throne, Zion (1901) is a romanticized version of its Utah setting with great artistic liberties taken. Moran works his subject with a sublime artistic sense, and the painting conveys the tremendous emotional power of the location instead of a precise rendering with photorealistic representation. His paintings of Yellowstone National Park, the Rocky Mountains, the Grand Tetons, and many other grandiose natural landmarks are now fixtures of prestigious American institutions. The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (1872), an initial source of inspiration for the establishment of the National Park Service, is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.

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Paintings Sold at Auction 

"The Grand Canyon of Colorado" (1904), oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 60 in., Sold at Christie’s New York: 22 May 2014 for $12,485,000 USD
“The Grand Canyon of Colorado” (1904), oil on canvas, 29 1/2 x 60 in., Sold at Christie’s New York: 22 May 2014 for $12,485,000 USD

The Grand Canyon of the Colorado achieved the impressive sum of $12,485,000 at auction in 2014. This piece was one of the last great Moran paintings to be offered at auction as comparable works are seldom found outside of museum collections. 

"Mists in the Yellowstone" (1908), oil on canvas, 30 x 45 in., Sold at Coeur d'Alene Art Auction: 24 July 2004 for $4,928,000 USD
“Mists in the Yellowstone” (1908), oil on canvas, 30 x 45 in., Sold at Coeur d’Alene Art Auction: 24 July 2004 for $4,928,000 USD

Mists in the Yellowstone nearly two decades ago at auction. This painting showcases Moran’s remarkable ability to show scale and distance on the restrictive surface of a canvas. 

"Mount Moran, Teton Range " (1903), oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in. Sold at Sotheby’s New York: 30 November 2000 for $2,975,750 USD.
“Mount Moran, Teton Range ” (1903), oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in. Sold at Sotheby’s New York: 30 November 2000 for $2,975,750 USD.

Mount Moran, named in honor of the landscape painter himself, is now part of the 300,000-acre Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. This painting sold over 20 years ago for nearly $3M, and Moran’s paintings have increased in value since then.  

Paintings in Museum Collections

"The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" (1893-1901), oil on canvas, 96 1/2 x 168 3/8 in., The Smithsonian American Art Museum
“The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” (1893-1901), oil on canvas, 96 1/2 x 168 3/8 in., The Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone is one of Moran’s indisputable masterpieces. The work was gifted to the Smithsonian in 1928 by a private collector and is considered to be a cornerstone of the Smithsonian’s collection.

"Colburn's Butte, South Utah" (1873), watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 13 7/8 x 9 7/16 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art
“Colburn’s Butte, South Utah” (1873), watercolor, gouache and graphite on paper, 13 7/8 x 9 7/16 in., The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Colburn’s Butte, South Utah is typical of the small watercolors and drawings that Moran created during his sketching sessions on the 1873 expedition to the Grand Canyon and Utah.  These smaller-scale works would be retained by the artist and used as reference material for later works, such as The Great White Throne, Zion. 

"Hot Springs of the Yellowstone" (1872), oil on canvas, 28 × 42 × 5 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art
“Hot Springs of the Yellowstone” (1872), oil on canvas, 28 × 42 × 5 in., Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Hot Springs of the Yellowstone shows the rich geological variety in Yellowstone National Park. The park’s volcanic features are depicted in Moran’s work with an attuned sense of atmospheric perspective. 

"Green River, Wyoming" (1879), oil on panel, 11 1/2 x 36 in., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
“Green River, Wyoming” (1879), oil on panel, 11 1/2 x 36 in., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Green River, Wyoming in the collection of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is not a National Park painting, but another of Moran’s most notable landscape subjects. Another depiction of this scene sold in 2008 for over $17.7 million USD, setting the record for a Moran painting at auction.

More to Explore

Read: Museum Management Program, National Park Service: Thomas Moran
Watch: The painting that inspired a National Park
Read: Thomas Moran: Artistic Master of the Conservation Movement

Art Detail