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

Canyon of the Virgin River

Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
Canyon of the Virgin River
signed with initials in monogram and dated 'Copyright By/TMoran. 1909.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
20 x 30 in. (50.8 x 76.2 cm.)
Painted in 1909.
The artist.
(Probably) Moulton & Ricketts, Chicago, Illinois, acquired from the above.
Osborne Gallery, New York, by 1912.
George R. Whitmore, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada, acquired from the above.
Mr. Sicks, Seattle, Washington, acquired from the above, circa early 1950s.
Dr. Timothy E. Sicks, by descent from the above, 1963.
[With]Hirschl & Adler Galleries, Inc., New York, 1983.
J.N. Bartfield Galleries, New York, acquired from the above, 1983.
Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1983.
(Probably) Artist's studio record, December 30, 1908 (as Cliffs of the Rio Virgen, Southern Utah, Sunrise).

Lot Essay

This work will be included in Stephen L. Good's and Phyllis Braff's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.

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 U.S. National Parks. Canyon of the Virgin River manifests the profound veneration and wonder that Moran harbored for the unmatched topography of the Southwest. Here he presents a romantic and inspirational vision in an awe-inspiring vista that captures the unique character and grandeur of this area of the country.

Moran first visited the Southwest, predominantly Utah, and eventually Arizona and the Grand Canyon, in 1873 as a member of Major John Wesley Powell's geographic surveying 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.” (N.K. Anderson, et al.Thomas Moran, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 358) The explorer’s stories of the dramatic landscape instantly captured Moran’s attention, undoubtedly stimulating thoughts of the endless possibilities of such a place at the hands of one of the country’s foremost landscape painters, and Moran soon accepted an invitation to join a subsequent excursion. After travelling by rail to Green River, Wyoming, and onwards to the Salt Lake City, Utah, area, Moran set out overland with Justin E. Colburn, a newspaper correspondent who would write of the vast lands and inhospitable environment.  The pair travelled south, along the front of the mountains, periodically taking side trips into the wilderness, both finding its unique landforms intensely stimulating. Colburn later reported, "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.” (as quoted in Thomas Moran, 1997, p. 364)

Eventually, in Southern Utah, the pair met the Rio Virgin River, south of Toquerville, and headed East into the numerous wonderful canyons of the area known today as Zion National Park. Making note of the spectacular formations all around them, they travelled through the deep canyons, continuing northeast before eventually turning southeast and arriving in Kanab, Major Powell’s headquarters. After resting for several days and preparing for future excursions, Moran, Colburn, Powell’s topographical aide, Professor Almon Harris Thompson, and photographer John K. Hillers set out on the Rockville Trail back in the direction of Zion. Now approaching the high plateau, the group eventually arrived at the brink of Pa-ru-nu-weap or Roaring Water, Canyon, well above the east fork of the Virgin River, likely the location featured in the present work. Later describing the scene as in the painting, Powell reported, “Below us stretching to the south, until the world is lost in blue haze, is a painted desert; not a desert plain, but a desert of rocks, cut by deep gorges and relieved by towering cliffs and pinnacled rocks--naked rocks, brilliant in the sunlight.” (as quoted in T. Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, Norman, Oklahoma, 1966, p. 122) After climbing to a still higher vantage point, Moran made at least one sketch, which he reported in letters sent back to his wife, and committed the site to memory, to serve as material for future, finished compositions executed in his East Coast studio.

In Canyon of the Virgin River, Moran masterfully captures the majesty and visual splendor of the place and conveys the awe and wonder that these natural formations evoke. He mesmerizes the viewer, presenting a vast expanse bisected by a deep jagged cut in the earth. Throughout, there is a dramatic play of light and shadow on these enchanted lands that is heightened by Moran’s celebrated ability to capture the various colors and textures that characterize the canyons of the Southwest. As with his most celebrated depictions of the area, Moran takes as his vantage point a high overlook, underscoring the vastness and seemingly endless depth of the canyon, which is further underscored by a left-hand turn at the back of the formation that obscures the viewer’s view. A small silver waterfall visible in the distance, a tributary to the Colorado, is dwarfed by the overwhelming largess of the landscape, achieving the same effect employed with human figures by numerous member of the Hudson River School. In Canyon of the Virgin River, however, there is no sign of human presence. 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." (as quoted in C. Clark, Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West, Austin, Texas, 1980, p. 21)

Featuring such celebrated characteristics, Canyon of the Virgin River is representative of Moran’s mature style and of the artist at the height of his abilities. Moran, who had studied in Europe, began painting at a time when John Ruskin’s strict theories mandating adherence to transcribing nature with exactitude were being championed. However, by the time he created the present work, even after having travelled West under the auspices of precise geologic transcription, it is evident that he was far more interested in capturing and conveying the awe-inspiring effect of the landscape than realistic exactitude. In Canyon of the Virgin River, as in all his best Grand Canyon works, Moran integrates a true understanding of the mood of this unique place and its sublime beauty. This tactic was noted by contemporary observers, "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, p. 217)

Both Moran’s talents as an artist, including his ability as a painter and his intense commitment to his subject, were exceptionally well matched for the wonderful subjects of the American Southwest. This vast and poetic landscape presented Moran with an opportunity to convey his adoration and reverence for the region and in so doing secure a name for himself within the pantheon of American painters. Canyon of the Virgin River features all the characteristics of Moran’s most successful paintings, while also representing a rare portrayal of a unique locale. When first executed, such paintings conveyed the grandeur of the entire West to a ravenous American public, capturing their imagination and largely influencing their conception of the area. Today, these paintings arouse in their viewers a romantic conception of the history of our country, while continuing to capture with intense emotion our great admiration for its unique and magical lands.

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