Thomas Moran first traveled to the Grand Canyon in the summer of 1873 as a member of Major John Wesley Powell's expedition. Captivated by the rugged splendor and mesmerizing light, he returned with his son Paul in 1892 and visited often from 1901 until 1910. During this period, Moran's art became synonymous with the place, "In exchange for rail passes and hotel accommodations, Moran produced paintings of the canyon that were used as promotional tools in hotels, offices, and railroad cars. Additional images were distributed on calendars, in guidebooks and brochures, even on stationary. Eventually Moran became so closely identified with the canyon that the railroad used his picture in advertisements." (N.K. Anderson, Thomas Moran, New Haven, Connecticut, 1997, p. 164)
Instated as a national park in 1919, the Grand Canyon is a magnificent gorge created by the Colorado River. Largely contained in the state of Arizona, the canyon--which is 277 miles long, ranges in width from 4 to 18 miles and is more than a mile deep in areas--was mostly unexplored until Powell's first expedition in 1869. Now a popular tourist attraction, Moran witnessed the early growth of the area over a period of almost 40 years. He ignored this development in many of his paintings, instead choosing to portray the natural wonder in a pristine state in masterworks such as A Side Canyon, Grand Canyon, Arizona.
Painted in 1905, A Side Canyon, Grand Canyon, Arizona is superlative of Moran's talent for composition and manifests the dramatic use of light and color that is characteristic of his finest Western paintings. On his travels west, he made numerous field sketches and developed them, at times with the aid of photographs, into finished oil paintings when he returned to his studio. Moran did not believe in merely transcribing the landscape, but rather in capturing the essence of its effect on a firsthand viewer. To accomplish this, he often altered the landscape to create an aesthetically arresting image.
In the present work, the small rift in the mountainscape creates a diagonal that emphasizes the middleground while carrying the viewer's eye to the vague outlines of mountains in the distance to convey the vastness of the landscape beyond. The tree at left in the foreground is elegantly outlined and acts as a counterpoint to the rocky outcropping imbuing the composition with a sense of harmonious balance. The influence of British Romantic painter Joseph Mallord Williams Turner is evident in the rich, fiery oranges and yellows of the rock formation, which are contrasted with the sumptuous greens of the vegetation to heighten the overall aesthetic effect. Moran suffuses the landscape with warm, golden light while casting the foreground in deep shadow; this opposition adds to the majesty of the scene. Moran also skillfully manipulates paint application and brushstoke to capture the variegated textures of the rugged landscape and the effects of light on form.
A Side Canyon, Grand Canyon, Arizona is a consummate example of the refinement, elegance and grandeur of Moran's greatest paintings of the Grand Canyon. The artist seamlessly integrates his compositional and aesthetic sensibilities to imbue the primordial scene with sense of majesty and timeless beauty that both encapsulates and evokes the West's untamed past.
This painting will be included in Stephen L. Good and Phyllis Braff's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.