In the second half of the nineteenth century, America was expanding westward as pioneers sought to settle unconquered territory, with the push to industrialize this portion of the nation echoing 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 that 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 America: 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 remote tributary of the Colorado River. Along with the railroad came speculators seeking to commodify the natural resources of this virgin land, and the rush resulted in the creation and subsequent boom of Green River City.
Thomas Moran first travelled to the West in 1871 via the Union Pacific Railroad to Green River City. 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, and contribute illustrations to an article about the trip for Scribner’s Monthly magazine. Upon disembarking from the train, 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,” 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). He captures the river, its towering cliffs and their reflection in this quickly executed watercolor. Moran stayed only briefly in Green River City before setting off for Yellowstone, but not before making several field sketches with assiduous notations that he would later adapt into large-scale paintings back in his New York studio. The Green River became one of the artist’s favorite Western subjects, one that became quintessentially his, and inspired some of his most majestic and iconic images in the visual history of the American West, including The Cliffs of Green River, 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., 1997, p. 49)
The Cliffs of Green River, Wyoming spectacularly captures the cliffs’ domineering silhouettes and soft reflections with richly painted yellow and orange hues. The narrowly rendered 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 geologic formations in the distance, 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 in the scene, using 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 saturated color and atmospheric light that enhances its vast ruggedness and grandeur for an audience unfamiliar with the West, but imbues truth for those with first-hand knowledge of its aura.
Moran’s treatment of light, color and atmosphere in The Cliffs of Green River, 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. Similarities in the two artists’ works are impossible to overlook, as evidenced through comparison of the present work with Turner’s Glaucus and Scylla (1841, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, Texas). The fiery palette, infusion of light, modulation of color and treatment of the water’s reflective surface in each work are strikingly similar. The sky of The Cliffs of Green River, 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 backdrop that further aggrandizes the cliffs’ grandeur and majesty.
Also like Turner, Moran drew artistic inspiration from the landscape, but frequently altered the actual scene for an effect that captures the character of the vision rather than accurately transcribes it. 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. Moran declared, “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, has 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) As such, both Turner’s and Moran’s 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 signs of industrialization in order to present his viewer with a pristine, heroic, Western 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,” p. 247)
In reality, Green River City in 1896 was a community burgeoning with people and industry, and the landscape was scarred by train tracks, buildings and bridges. Moran, however, chose to exclude these elements from The Cliffs of Green River, Wyoming and limit the human presence in the painting to a solitary band of Native American figures. For Moran the figures act as a formal compositional element through which the viewer enters the picture, indicating the monumental scale of the majestic landforms and imbuing the work with the romantic nostalgia of this untamed new world. Furthermore the Indians furthered the goal of presenting a pristine, magisterial wilderness with the spirit of adventure to a New York audience, such as the audience viewing The Cliffs of Green River, Wyoming at the 1896 National Academy of Design exhibition.
Masterworks, like The Cliffs of Green River, Wyoming, were and remain so appealing because they speak to viewer’s romantic conceptions of the West. “The compositional formula [Moran] 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 Cliffs of Green River, Wyoming conveyed the grandeur of the region to the American public, capturing their imagination and largely influencing their conception of the West. Today they remain icons that capture a dynamic moment in the nation’s expansion and a potent vision of a distant time and place.