Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
Property from an Oklahoma Private Collection
Thomas Moran (1837-1926)

Survey Party in the Valley of the Yellowstone

Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
Survey Party in the Valley of the Yellowstone
signed with initials in monogram and dated 'TMoran./1873' (lower left)
watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper
6 7/8 x 13 ¼ in. (17.5 x 33.7 cm.), image
Executed in 1873.
Private collection, Willingboro, New Jersey.
J.N. Bartfield Galleries, New York; Spanierman Gallery, LLC, New York; Rosenstock Arts, Denver, Colorado, acquired from the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1984.

Lot Essay

In 1871, Thomas Moran first travelled West, joining Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, on his surveying expedition of the magical land at the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. Setting out from New York City, Moran travelled to Green River, Wyoming, and then on to Utah via the Union Pacific Railway, before riding north on a four-day, 350-mile stagecoach trip to Virginia City, Montana. In the gold mining boom-town, the young artist joined Hayden’s expedition, as well as photographer William Henry Jackson, before they set out for Fort Ellis, Montana, near present day Bozeman. From Fort Ellis, the entire party made their first true push for the Yellowstone area, specifically the Valley of Yellowstone River, and eventually Boteler’s Ranch near Emigrant.

The present work likely depicts the northern opening of the Valley of the Yellowstone in Montana, today perhaps more commonly known as “Paradise Valley.” Despite the relatively small size of the watercolor, Moran masterfully conveys the vast beauty of his subject, in part by lending scale to the composition with a group of members from the expedition rendered with delicate detail in the foreground. At right, Moran includes a somewhat separate pair, featuring a rider struggling to maintain control over a rambunctious white steed, which bears resemblance to Alfred Jacob Miller’s romantic representations of wild horses. On the whole, however, the figures that are juxtaposed against the drama of the landscape are modern, likely those soldiers and engineers with whom Moran travelled. The packhorses are heavily laden with materials, undoubtedly including the complex photographic equipment Jackson required to create his own recordings of the scenery.

Moran himself may have been captured in the scene, in his red flannel shirt and boots. “As the photographer Jackson remembered him, Moran ‘made a picturesque appearance when mounted,’ his horse rather slight and dark-colored with lighter-colored hocks, as revealed by Jackson’s photograph of the artist en route to Yellowstone on horseback. ‘The jaunty tilt of his sombrero, his long yellowish beard, and the portfolio under his arm marked the artistic type, with something of local color imparted by a rifle hung from the saddle horn.’” (T. Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, Norman, Oklahoma, 1966, p. 85)

Here, Moran appears to have struck the perfect balance between style and historical record, much as the best of his Yellowstone watercolors succeed in their delicate equilibrium between scientific exactitude and artistic romance. The success of this equilibrium was immediately evident, in not only the important role his images played in the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, but equally in their enthusiastic reception amongst patrons and mass audiences alike. “Moran’s art was responsible not only for introducing the appearance of Yellowstone to Americans, but also for contributing to the way that these places were understood. What had been perceived as distant, sinister, and hellish places before 1870 became, through his portrayals, places of magnificence and wonder that could stand as important symbols of America’s uniqueness.” (M. Panzer, Splendors of the American West: Thomas Moran’s Art of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, Birmingham, Alabama, 1990, p. 29)

The present work closely resembles Moran’s watercolor The Yellowstone Range, near the Crow Mission (Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Oklahoma), part of a commission by wealthy patron William Blackmore of several Yellowstone works.

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