James Dunlevy, who traveled to Yellowstone in 1867, wrote of the then largely unexplored area, "Tall spires of colossal grandeur which in beauty and symmetry are superior to any works of art; beetling cliffs of rock...turreted like castles and rolling away off in beautiful white pyramidal forms, were to be seen on every side. Language is not adequate to convey an idea of the marvelous beauty of the scenery, which is beyond the power of descriptions, and begets a wonderful fascination in the mind of the beholder who reverently gazes at the snow crowned summits, that seem as if 'they were to show how earth may pierce to Heaven and leave vain man below.'...We trust ere long some select party, well prepared and equipped, will be able to penetrate these wilds and reveal to the world its manifest beauties, exiting as they do in all their pristine grandeur." (as quoted in J.L. Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, Washington, D.C., 1992, p. 47) Thomas Moran was similarly awestruck by the magnificent and rugged topography and through his splendid paintings of Yellowstone such as A Passing Shower in the Yellowstone Cañon, was able to transcend the limitations of written language to convey the majesty and grandeur of the place and captivate the American public.
Moran first traveled to Yellowstone with Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, Director of the United States Geological Survey, on his surveying expedition in 1871. He composed various sketches of the territory that, along with his fellow traveler, William Henry Jackson's, photographs were instrumental in Congress' decision to make Yellowstone America's first national park on March 1, 1872. Moran later used these sketches as well as Jackson's photographs (fig. 1) to compose large-scale oil paintings in his east coast studio. He first gained acclaim for his paintings of the American West in 1872, with the monumental The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone (Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.), which was purchased by the United States government the year that it was completed. He continued to paint the imposing Yellowstone throughout his career and it is the subject of many of his finest masterworks such as A Passing Shower in the Yellowstone Cañon. In 1929, Jackson wrote, "Moran has been the greatest painter of the Yellowstone, and it was his wonderful coloring, in pictures of canyons and hot springs, that made the convincing argument for their preservation for the benefit of all posterity." (as quoted in J.L. Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, p. 60)
Moran's romantic, idealistic approach to the landscape distinguished him from other painters. He expressed his sentiments about landscape painting when discussing The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone, "By all Artists, it has heretofore been deemed next to impossible to make good pictures of Strange and Wonderful Scenes in nature; and that the most that could be done with such material was to give topographical or geological characteristics. But I have always held that the Grandest, Most Beautiful, or Wonderful in Nature, would, in capable hands, make the grandest, most beautiful, or wonderful pictures, and that the business of a great painter should be the representation of great scenes in Nature. All the characteristics attach to the Yellowstone region, and if I fail to prove this, I fail to prove myself worthy [of] the name of painter." (as quoted in Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, p. 65) Thomas Moran proved himself as a painter through masterworks such as A Passing Shower in the Yellowstone Cañon. While the use of light and color in the present work demonstrate the influence of British Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner and Swiss painter Alexandre Calame, Moran is original in his approach to the uniquely American landscape.
Painted in 1903, A Passing Shower in the Yellowstone Cañon, manifests Moran's approach to landscape painting as well as his artistic virtuoso. This dramatic painting depicts a steep slope and rocky outcroppings of the canyon in the foreground and middle ground, while the distant waterfall and brief glimpse of rushing river denote the location. Moran blends pinks, yellows and blues throughout the composition to imbue the painting with cohesion and unity. He skillfully manipulates light and shadow to heighten the majesty of the scene, bathing the highest peaks in warm light to heighten their pristine grandeur while covering areas of the slope and distant peaks in deep blue shadow to create a striking contrast. The immediate foreground, which consists of richly colored evergreens and rocks, is highly detailed and cast in deep shadow to act as a frame for the dazzling scene beyond. Moran captures the atmosphere of the place through billowing clouds and varies paint application throughout the composition to masterfully capture a multitude of nature's textures. The only sign of life is a solitary bird that is dwarfed by nature's majesty.
Of all the places that Moran visited in the American West, Yellowstone had the greatest impact on him. He wrote, "I have wandered over a good part of the Territories and have seen much of the varied scenery of the Far West, but that of the Yellowstone retains its hold upon my imagination with a vividness as of yesterday...The impression then made upon me by the stupendous & remarkable manifestations of nature's forces will remain with me as long as memory lasts." (as quoted in T. Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, Norman, Oklahoma, 1966, p. 65) In masterworks such as A Passing Shower in the Yellowstone Cañon Moran instills in the viewer his wonder and awe of the glorious landscape.
This painting will be included in Stephen L. Good and Phyllis Braff's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.