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Thomas Moran - the art of the sublime

Moran portraitDr Alexis Drahos, art historian, on the last and most geological of American 19th Century landscape painters

Geoscientist 22.06 July 2012

Thomas Moran (1837-1926 - picture) is regarded as one of the most famous American landscape painters of the second half of the 19th Century. To understand his work, we must consider the beginnings of the Hudson River School, which developed in the early 1820s in the emerging American nation. This pictorial movement devoted itself basically to landscape painting and, above all, ‘virgin Nature’ as exemplified by the landscape of the West. 

It was not rare for painters who were part of this movement to be keen scientists - and specifically, amateur geologists. Thomas Cole (1801-48), the first painter of this school, who achieved celebrity as early as 1820s, owned a mineral collection and his paintings are thoroughly imbued with geology. As for Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), he followed in the footsteps of German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt – who traveled in South America between 1799 and 1805 and depicted Chimborazo. Like his two predecessors, Thomas Moran was an Earth science enthusiast and brought this interest to the fore in his canvases. 


The Chasm of Colorado, one of his most famous works, was painted after Moran participated in John Wesley Powell’s (1834-1902) geographical and topographical survey, in the summer of 1873. This was one of the four ‘Great Surveys’, funded by Federal Government during the early 1870s. Their main goal was to estimate the natural resources of the Western territories, putting great emphasis on the areas’s geology and topography. The Surveys brought together scientists, artists and photographers.

Moran had already taken part in the Hayden Survey (1871), an experience that resulted in another famous canvas - The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone . Under the influence of John Wesley Powell, Thomas Moran embraced the geological theories of Charles Lyell who argued that our planet was constantly evolving, experiencing continuous cycles of erosion, deposition and uplift at an infinitely gradual pace. Such views were presaged by Cosmos (1845-47) the epochal book of Alexander Von Humboldt, whose American fame was reaching its zenith at this time.

Moran Yellowstone 
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1893-1901) by Thomas Moran.  Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone brings Moran’s interest in Earth-shaping processes to the fore. By this time, Moran had already seen photographs of the Grand Canyon from George Wheeler’s recent expedition, and he clearly recognised that the western landscape would offer rich material for his pictorial gift. Contrary to The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, whose subject was fire, The Chasm of Colorado deals rather with the action of water. Some elements hint at the work of water - the pools in the foreground, and the low-lying clouds. Most impressive is the threatening thunderstorm, which dramatises the work of subaerial aqueous erosion.

The geologic province depicted is the Colorado Plateau, known for its well preserved, mainly sedimentary sequence of Palaeozoic and younger Mesozoic rocks. The rocks represent a range of depositional environments from deep water to marginal marine limestones and desert sandstones. The painting suggests that the processes responsible for the chasm cut through them were more gradual than catastrophic. Moreover, the downcutting channels clearly meander, winding around in large curving patterns and suggesting slower development. This picture is all about erosion, and its almost timeless work over millions of years.

In Moran’s time, it was generally accepted that our planet was much older than Biblical Scholars claimed. As early as the mid 18th Century, geological prophets like James Hutton had already contemplated an Earth millions of years old. In this picture, the painter seeks to show us the transitory nature of the ‘timeless’ scene, and emphasises the changes continually wrought by natural processes. We can see this represented in the moving storm clouds and the balanced boulders in the right foreground.

Moran chasm of Colorado 
The Chasm of the Colorado (1873-74) by Thomas Moran.  Smithsonian American Art Museum. 


There is no sign of life anywhere, and no human interest. Contemporary commentators likened this painting to a extra-terrestrial landscape. Many of Moran’s contemporaries saw also Dante’s inferno in Chasm of the Colorado, while others saw a geologic textbook in which the chief protagonist was water. After his first visit in 1873, Moran returned to the Grand Canyon many times. He depicts here a world of desolation.

While on location, Moran wrote to his wife Mary : “The whole gorge for miles lay beneath us and it was by far the most awfully grand and impressive scene I have ever yet seen. The color of the Grand Canon itself is red, a light Indian Red, and the material sandstone and red marble and is in terraces all the way down. All above the canyon is variously colored sandstone mainly a light flesh or cream color and worn into very fine forms”.

To Moran, unless a geologist could look at his painting and judge its geological accuracy, he could not be confident in his work. By the virtue of his interest in Earth science, Thomas Moran follows the example of a number of painters before him, such as William Turner, an artist he greatly revered. Moran seems to have been introduced to Turner through Ruskin’s Modern Painters (1843-60). Moran was also profoundly influenced by John Ruskin and until his death in 1926, would claim that landscape painting must be rooted in a profound knowledge of nature.

In this picture, depicting the geological history of the region, Thomas Moran created a tour de force. He shows, with the accurate depiction of the site and specifically the rocks and the strata, that he kept abreast of the progress of the science of his time. However, this painting was not his last geological picture - witness The Mountain of the Holy Cross (1875) where the painter addresses the question of glacial deposits. This painting coming after The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone and The Chasm of Colorado, completes the trilogy. The glacial geology of the Holy Cross Valley was studied by Ferdinand Hayden in his book The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Region of Portion of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah (1876). In this painting, Thomas Moran depicts accurately for example the roches moutonnées, which one can observe prominently in the middle distance.

In his letters, Thomas Moran shows that he was conversant with geological vocabulary when he writes: “The descent into the valley was even steeper than the ascent had been but was freer from fallen timber. We got down all right and without accident, but Horror ! the way up the valley was infinitely worse than anything we had yet encountered. A swamp covered with the worst of fallen logs and projecting through which were the Roche Moutonnées or Sheep Rocks, rounded and smooth, slippery, varying from 10 to 40 feet high”.

The representation of a cross on the summit in the background could hint at relations between science and religion, at a time where the two could still be linked. A number of scientists of the time - and artists interested in geology- believed in God and did not regard science and religion as being at all incompatible.

Thomas Moran was unquestionably the last great American painter of the 19th Century to espose a profound interest in geology. His vast landscapes are imbued with Earth science, just like those of his forerunners Thomas Cole and Edwin Church. While continuing a great tradition into the final years of the 19th Century, he also brought about its closure.