In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was expanding westward as pioneers sought to settle unconquered territory, and the push to industrialize this portion of the nation echoed that of the Eastern seaboard several decades earlier. The American public's imagination was captivated by stories and images from this distant, and still relatively wild, part of the country. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's epic poem, Song of Hiawatha, published in 1855 had much the same effect as James Fenimore Cooper's The Last of the Mohicans had engendered on the previous generation. "[F]ollowing the Civil War, when capital and labor were freed from destructive conflict and redirected toward what was viewed as constructive growth, the American West functioned as both an iconic symbol of national identity and a resource to be used in transforming the nation from a wilderness republic into an industrial power." (N.K. Anderson, "The Kiss of Enterprise: The Western Landscape as Symbol and Resource," in W.H. Truettner, ed., The West as American: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920, Washington, D.C., 1991, p. 240)
The Union Pacific Railroad first steamed into Green River, Wyoming territory in July 1868. Prior to this point, one had to follow the treacherous Oregon Trail to get to this tributary of the Colorado River, which kept the area's population to a minimum. The arrival of the railroad, however, began a speculators' rush resulting in the creation and subsequent boom of Green River City. "With the advent of the railroad the Green River landscape became quite literally a commodity available for purchase.'" ("The Kiss of Enterprise: The Western Landscape as Symbol and Resource," in The West as American: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920, p. 246)
Thomas Moran traveled on the Union Pacific to Green River City on his first trip west in 1871. He was on his way to join Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, Director of the United States Geological Survey, on his surveying expedition of Yellowstone, Wyoming Territory in order to illustrate an article about the trip for Scribner's Monthly magazine. Upon disembarking the train in Green River City, Moran was greeted by an unexpectedly grand panorama, "a landscape unlike any other. The striated sandstone cliffs with their yellow, orange, red, and lavender bands were ideally suited to a painter who found his inspiration in the color of J.M.W. Turner." ("The Kiss of Enterprise: The Western Landscape as Symbol and Resource," in The West as American: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920, p. 246)
In awe of the natural beauty of the place, Moran completed First Sketch Made in the West at Green River, Wyoming (1871, Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma, fig. 1). He captures the river, its towering cliffs and their reflection in this quickly executed watercolor, which depicts the monumental buttes from a similar angle as the present painting, Green River of Wyoming. Moran stayed only briefly in Green River before setting off for Yellowstone; nonetheless he made several field sketches with assiduous notations that he would later adapt into large-scale paintings back in his studio. The Green River became one of the artist's favorite Western subjects and inspired some of his most majestic and iconic images of the American West, including Green River of Wyoming. "Unlike Yellowstone, the landscape of Green River had not been 'previewed' for eastern viewers through illustrations published in Scribner's. The multicolored, castellated buttes were an entirely fresh subject for paintings. Moran made the most of this opportunity, claiming the landscape as his own through a series of paintings completed over a period of forty years." (N.K. Anderson, Thomas Moran, Washington, D.C., 19997, p. 49)
Painted in 1878, this is one of the artist's earliest large oils of the subject and spectacularly captures the cliffs' domineering silhouettes and soft reflections with richly painted yellow and orange hues. The languid river snakes throughout the panorama, acting as a mirror that captures and diffuses the luminous reflection of the buttes and surrounding shrubbery into an enchanting pool of yellow, orange, green and lavender. The buttes in the distance to the right, and the vast plains to the left of the composition underscore the expansiveness of the landscape and conjure visions of an untamed wilderness. Moran skillfully captures varying textures of the scene using color modulations and a variegated paint surface to convey the buttes' rough sandstone façades and the dry, coarse terrain of the plains. The entire landscape is suffused with color-saturated, atmospheric light, which enhances its vast ruggedness and grandeur.
Moran's treatment of light, color and atmosphere in Green River of Wyoming manifests the influence of British Romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner. Moran had long studied black and white reproductions of Turner's paintings before traveling to Europe in 1861 where he studied the master's work in person. There are many similarities in the artists' work as seen when comparing Green River of Wyoming to Turner's Glaucus and Scylla (Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, fig. 2). The fiery palette, infusion of light, modulation of color and treatment of the water's reflective surface are similar in the two works. The sky of Green River of Wyoming, however, is a bright, clear blue, reminiscent of Turner's Venetian scenes. This crystalline sky is cool in contrast to the warm landforms and acts as a foil that further aggrandizes the cliffs' grandeur and majesty.
Like Turner, Moran also drew inspiration from the landscape, frequently altering the actual scene for an artistic effect in order to capture the character of the vision rather than accurately transcribe it. Moran alleged, "I place no value upon literal transcripts from nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization. Of course, all art must come through nature or naturalism, but I believe that a place, as a place, had no value in itself for the artist only so far as it furnishes the material from which to construct a picture." (as quoted in L. Nelson, "The Oil Paintings of Thomas Moran" in Thomas Moran, 1837-1926, exhibition catalogue, Riverside, California, 1963, p. 18) In each artist's composition the harmonious tones of pink, orange, yellow and green of the mountains, water and landscape combine with bright light to create drama and beauty. Both masterworks go beyond mere renditions of nature: Turner through the introduction of mythological subjects in order to imbue his work with a moral lesson and Moran through the omission of all signs of industrialization in order to present his viewer with a pristine, heroic landscape. "For Moran, neither the railroad nor the burgeoning town that had sprung to life beside the railroad tracks threatened the vast and awesome grandeur of the landscape, for in his art he was free to edit and invent, preserving on canvas the mythic landscape endowed by history with symbolic as well as economic value." ("The Kiss of Enterprise: The Western Landscape as Symbol and Resource," in The West as American: Reinterpreting Images of the Frontier, 1820-1920, p. 247)
The reality of Green River City in 1871 was that it was burgeoning with people and industry and the landscape was scarred by train tracks, buildings and bridges (fig. 3). Moran, however, chose to exclude these elements from Green River of Wyoming and limit human presence in the painting to a solitary Native American figure seated on the river bank in the foreground. For Moran the figure acts to both indicate the monumental scale of the majestic landforms and to imbue the work with the romantic nostalgia of the untamed New World. Moran's depictions of Green River, regardless of scale, were always of a pristine, magisterial wilderness imbued with the spirit of adventure and dreams of destiny as yet unfulfilled.
Masterworks such as Green River of Wyoming, were and remain so appealing because they spoke to and aroused the viewer's romantic conceptions of the West. "The compositional formula he devised for views of Green River fed the lingering hunger for spectacular New World landscapes, which would surpass that for views of Europe, and at the same time tapped an increasingly nostalgic view of American Indian life fanned by the relentless popularity of works like Hiawatha. Moran's Green River images proved so popular, spoke, in other words, so clearly to a romantic and already nostalgic impression of the West, that the artist continued to sell variations on the theme well into the twentieth century." (N.K. Anderson, Thomas Moran, p. 50) Paintings such as The Green River of Wyoming conveyed the grandeur of the region to the American public, capturing their imagination and largely influencing their conception of the West. Today they are masterful works that capture a dynamic moment in the nation's expansion and a potent vision of a then distant region.
This painting will be included in Stephen L. Good and Phyllis Braff's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.