In 1882, after returning from a trip to Europe, Thomas Moran embarked upon another journey, this time to Mexico, which would result in a new inspirational subject for the artist. The impetus for this trip was likely connected with the promotion of the Mexican National Railroad, which was to link the Pacific with the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic trade routes, and also to extend to locales in the United States.
By 1880 the line extended four hundred miles, from Vera Cruz to Mexico City. It is believed that Moran was commissioned by William J. Palmer, who was the operator and builder of the line, to produce picturesque views of the region that would stimulate commercial use of the railroad. By conveying the beauty and wonder of this undeveloped country, Palmer believed he could give justification for its economic development, and thus promote enterprise in the region via the railroad.
Embarking from New York in late January and accompanied only by a British employee of the railroad and a mining engineer, Moran set sail for Vera Cruz, which was the site of the start of the railroad line. When he arrived there on the third of February, the artist was enthralled by what he saw, creating numerous sketches of the unique and picturesque castle of San Juan d'Ulloa, an enormous fortress built upon a reef at the entrance to the city's harbor. The artist wrote home to his wife Mary about the view, describing it as, "A quiet smooth sea reflecting the castle and buildings. Very green water." (as quoted in A. Morand, Thomas Moran: The Field Sketches, 1856-1923, Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1996, p. 67)
Moran also compared this site to Venice, a city to which he had never traveled but had seen in the famous paintings of J.M.W. Turner. Indeed, the influence of Turner on Moran is evident in his Vera Cruz compositions, including the present painting. Moran painted Vera Cruz Harbor, Mexico in 1884 from his plein air sketches, recreating the site as if recalling a lovely dream. Its hazy atmospheric effects, swirling movement and opalescent hues add to the fantastic quality of the scene. In addition, the castle is depicted almost as a distant mirage, with its gleaming white structures and glassy reflections. By casting the profile of the castle and its reflection upon vast expanses of both water and sky, Moran created an exquisitely balanced composition in this work. With ethereal clouds hovering above and seagulls gently touching down in the foreground, this panoramic work transports the viewer to a place seemingly only possible in the imagination.
This painting will be included in Stephen L. Good's and Phyllis Braff's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.