Green River, Wyoming
In June 1871 Thomas Moran traveled on the Union Pacific Railroad as far as Corinne, Utah. He continued north by horse and coach to join Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden’s United States Geological Survey expedition near Virginia City Montana, from which they would enter Yellowstone. But Moran first encountered the spectacular cliffs along the Green River in southwestern Wyoming, and they made a lifelong impression upon him.1The painting is signed and dated at the lower right, “TYMORAN. 1900” (“TYM” in monogram). Moran’s monogram is better described as a cipher, since it combines western imagery—an arrowhead and perhaps a steer’s horns—with the initials, one of which stands for a nickname: “Yellowstone.” After the exhibition of his first paintings of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, he appended the epithet to his cipher. He sketched the cliffs then and on later trips, and from the sketches he made more than thirty paintings during the next forty years.2Tyler, 160 and 204, n. 100.
Moran was and is celebrated for capturing this sublime western landscape. Rising dramatically from the desolate plain, the cliffs, as John Wesley Powell wrote in 1875, “are all very soft and friable, and are strangely carved by the rains and streams. The fantastic rain-sculpture imitates architectural forms, and suggests rude and weird statuary.”3John Wesley Powell, “The Canons of the Colorado,” Scribner’s Monthly 9 (January 1875); quoted in Tyler, 160. The subject became Moran’s bread-and-butter topic; not surprisingly, his many versions vary in quality as well as in size and ambition. The Collection’s painting is traditional and conservative in its presentation of the diagonally receding cliffs (Moran clung to this viewpoint religiously) and in its shadowed proscenium-like foreground.
The light, however, dramatically striking the trail on which the dozen or so Indians ride, quickens the pace of our entry into the painting. By 1900, when he executed this work, Moran had become a more atmospheric painter, giving softness to the shadows of trees, the clouds of dust rising around the horses, the reflections on the water, and the rocky cliffs. There is very little impasto in the Collection’s canvas, although Moran’s brushwork is loose and painterly. Indeed, the whole surface quality is muted and mellow, and it induces a mood of reverie. Compared with many similar Morans, the cliffs are pulled closer to the viewer, and the river is given greater prominence.
The somewhat dreamy treatment of the scene may be fairly attributed to Moran’s remoteness from the actual motif (he had not revisited the Green River since 1879), his increasing aestheticism as he reached fame and old age, and the irreversible changes in the West itself. The immigrant English painter had witnessed the end of the Old West, and, in 1916, he retired to a California where the gold rush was remote history.4For further discussion of his paintings and a capsule biography of Moran, see Kloss 1985, 72, 200–202.
Excerpted from Jonathan L. Fairbanks. Becoming a Nation: Americana from the Diplomatic Reception Rooms, U.S. Department of State. New York: Rizzoli, 2003.