Thomas Moran was and continues to be celebrated as the visual architect of the dramatic Western panorama, which captured the imagination of turn of the century America and was integral to the creation of the national park system. Painted in 1904, The Grand Canyon of the Colorado is a masterwork that manifests the profound veneration and wonder that Moran harbored for his favorite subject. Here he presents a romantic and inspirational vision of the American West through an awe-inspiring panorama that captures the unique character and grandeur of the Grand Canyon as well as the endless possibilities of the Western expansion.
Moran first visited the Grand Canyon in 1873 as a member of John Wesley Powell's expedition. "Four years earlier Powell had captured the nation's attention when he led a small group of men in custom-crafted boats through the white water of the Colorado River. After listening to Powell describe the landscape through which the river had cut its path, Moran quickly perceived a subject equal in grandeur to that of Yellowstone. Already planning a pendant for his painting Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, which Congress had purchased for the Capitol in 1872, Moran accepted Powell's invitation to join him the following summer." (N.K. Anderson, et al., Thomas Moran, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 358) Moran was immediately captivated by the unique and dramatic light, color and topography of the place and later wrote, "Of all places on earth the great canyon of Arizona is the most inspiring in its pictorial possibilities." (as quoted in J.L. Kinsey, "Thomas Moran's Surveys of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon: The Coalition of Art, Business, and Government" in A.R. Morand, et al., Splendors of the American West: Thomas Moran's Art of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, Birmingham, Alabama, 1990, p. 37)
Justin E. Colburn, a newspaper correspondent who traveled with the party wrote of the largess and inhospitable nature of the area, "Nature's work in this cañon country is on the most magnificent scale. The plains are wide, the mountains high, and the walls of perpendicular cliffs hemming it in unbroken, and for many miles altogether impassable. The gorges are deep, and the color intense. There is a prodigality of everything but water, and the vegetable and animal life which cannot subsist without it. The Grand Cañon, the central feature of the whole, is for 270 miles an impassable gorge, whose sides range from 1,000 feet to one mile and a quarter in perpendicular height, cut through the solid rock by the action of the wild, impetuous river that flows through it. Its general course is east and west; but it is exceedingly tortuous and irregular in its direction. Into it there break innumerable side canons, whose united length is thousands of miles. Some of them run back into the country a hundred miles or more, and as they as well as the Grand Cañon are for the most part impassable, the edges of the Grand Cañon cannot be traversed without going around the side canons also. It is practicable to reach the brink of the cañon by any ordinary effort only at a few points." (as quoted in Thomas Moran, 1997, p. 364)
In The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, Moran masterfully captures the majesty and visual splendor of the place and conveys the awe and wonder that it evokes. He mesmerizes the viewer, presenting a spectacular expanse of rugged peaks and atmospheric valleys--throughout there is a dramatic play of light and shadow on the fantastic natural forms, heightened by his celebrated ability to capture the various colors and textures that characterize the Canyon. The left portion of the vista is cloaked in tempestuous clouds and shower, while the right half is under a blue sky punctuated by billowing clouds, indicating the capricious weather patterns of the area and their effect on the landscape.
Moran takes as his vantage point a high outlook, underscoring the vastness and grandeur of the Canyon, which is further heightened by the sliver of river visible in the distance. The powerful Colorado dwarfed by the overwhelming largess of the mountainscape, achieves a similar effect to the human figures dwarfed in the landscapes of the Hudson River painters - to underscore the glory and power of nature. In The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, however, there is no sign of human or animal presence as it is an homage to the primordial power of God's Nature. Moran's daughter Ruth recalled: "To him it was all grandeur, beauty, color and light--nothing of man at all but nature, virgin, unspoiled and lovely." (quoted in Carol Clark, Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West, Austin, Texas, 1980, p. 21)
Although Moran visited the Grand Canyon many times and created hundreds of images of the geologic wonder over the course of five decades, few are as richly complex or as monumental in scale as The Grand Canyon of the Colorado. The present work strongly relates to Chasm of the Colorado (1873-74, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., lent by the Department of the Interior Museum), which is perhaps Moran's most sensational painting. Chasm of the Colorado was painted as the companion piece to Moran's first monumental Western landscape, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C., lent by the Department of the Interior Museum) and both paintings were purchased by the U.S. Congress in 1874. Painted from a similar vantage point as Chasm of the Colorado, The Grand Canyon of the Colorado presents an equally awe-inspiring scene and shares the heightened drama created by the atmospheric effect of a coming storm over the breathtaking panorama of light and shadow covered and richly hued mountains.
The Grand Canyon of the Colorado is a masterwork of Moran's mature style and represents the artist at the height of his abilities. It is one of his most ambitious oils of the subject from the period and spectacularly captures the grandeur of the cliffs. Moran skillfully captures the varying textures of the scene using color modulations and a variegated paint surface to convey the cliffs' rough sandstone façades. He wrote of his fascination with the Grand Canyon, "Its forests of cedar and pine interspersed with aspens and dwarfish oak are weird in the extreme; its tremendous architecture fills one with wonder and admiration, and its color, forms and atmosphere are so ravishingly beautiful that, however well-traveled one may be, a new world is opened to him when he gazes into the Grand Canyon of Arizona." (as quoted in T. Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, Norman, Oklahoma, 1966, p. 216)
Moran, who had studied in Europe and particularly admired the work of J.M.W. Turner, began painting at a time when the aesthetic theories of John Ruskin were championed. Ruskin prescribed a strict adherence to transcribing nature exactly as it was. By the time Moran made his first trip to the American West, even under the auspices of precise geologic transcription, it is evident that he was far more interested in capturing and conveying the awe-inspiring effect the landscape inspired. In The Grand Canyon of the Colorado as in all his best works, Moran integrates the element of memory into the landscape to communicate its sublime beauty. This tactic was noted by contemporary observers in his working method, which reveal the artist's deep spiritual affinity towards nature and his romantic sensibilities. "Mr. Moran had the emotional side of his nature well under control. When others hurried from place to place, lest some new view escape their attention, he sat on a convenient rock near the brink and gazed silently into space, watching the shadows come and go and absorbing the subtle transformation caused by the always changing sunlight...He sketched scarcely at all, contenting himself with pencil memoranda of a few rock forms, and making no color notes whatsoever. He depended upon keen powers of observation and a well-trained memory for rich tones which perhaps a year later were to reappear on canvas, true to nature and likewise true to the interpretive touch of genius." (Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 1966, p. 217)
Moran's landscapes, particularly those of the Grand Canyon, a landscape so inextricably linked with American's national heritage, are treasures in our cultural history. Masterworks such as The Grand Canyon of the Colorado conveyed the grandeur of the region to the American public, capturing their imagination and largely influencing their conception of the West. To today's viewers they convey a dynamic moment in the nation's expansion and a powerful vision of a then distant region. Carol Clark writes, "Moran's western canvases and watercolors depicted areas of great significance to the American public; they conferred historical legitimacy to a land lacking human associations and presented a stage for the unfolding drama of a nation's future. Moran's American landscape could also rise in status by association with historical themes. As America viewed her land, especially the West, as part of a natural historical past destined to determine a great future, Americans began to accept landscape painting in oil and watercolor as an integral and formative element of this destiny. (Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West, Austin, Texas, 1980, p. 35) It was the finest accomplishment of Moran's career that through masterworks such as The Grand Canyon of the Colorado, he transformed the allure of the West in the American psyche into an integral part of the American identity.
This painting will be included in Stephen L. Good's and Phyllis Braff's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.