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

Castle Geyser, Yellowstone

Thomas Moran (1837-1926)
Castle Geyser, Yellowstone
signed with initials in monogram and dated 'TMoran./1873' (lower left)
watercolor, gouache and pencil on paper
9 ¼ x 13 ¾ in. (23.5 x 35 cm.), image; 10 x 14 3/8 in. (25.4 x 36.5 cm.), sheet
Executed in 1873.
Private collection, Willingboro, New Jersey.
Christie's, New York, 11 December 1981, lot 154, sold by the above.
J.N. Bartfield Galleries, New York, and Rosenstock Arts, Denver, Colorado, acquired from the above.
Acquired by the late owner from the above, 1983.

Lot Essay

The unique geological formations of the Yellowstone region, and especially those of the Firehole River area, captivated American audiences during the latter half of the 19th century. Seizing on fascination with this mysterious faraway place, Thomas Moran wholly committed himself to recreating literally and artistically their uniqueness, at a degree that would not only establish the painter as one of the most popular of his generation, but also lead to the area’s permanent preservation in the form of Yellowstone National Park. Castle Geyser, Yellowstone is a characteristic example of Moran’s best exploration of the subject, with exquisite detail, powerful color variation and dramatic atmospheric effect.

Images such as the present work were eagerly consumed by American patrons upon Moran’s return from his 1871 trip to Yellowstone. In addition to commissions by the country’s most enterprising businessmen, likely the original purpose of the present work, these works were reproduced and distributed more broadly to a mass audience. The most notable of these series was the stunning 15-part folio of chromolithograph reproductions commissioned by and created under the supervision of publisher Louis Prang in 1876. “Louis Prang was an aggressive and successful entrepreneur who built an enormous lithographic business. His first successful chromos reproduced paintings of sentimental and historic interest, but by 1873 he was anxious to undertake an ambitious project involving the increasingly popular American West. With this intention he tried to commission Thomas Moran to paint '12 or more water color pictures of the Yellowstone country.' Moran collaborated with Prang on the selection of subjects, sketching suggested designs in the margins of his letters, asking 'Shall I give you a geyser? The most pictorial one is the 'Castle,' but the 'Giant' is the largest.' As a lithographer, experienced in the printing trade, Moran knew well how Prang's artists and printers would use his watercolors for making chromolithographs. His highly finished watercolors, with distinct outlines and delicate but clear colors, suited their methods of reproduction, and Moran did not change his style for this commission. In all, he made twenty-four paintings for Prang, of which the printer used fifteen for The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, published in 1876 with text by F.V. Hayden." (C. Clark, Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West, Austin, Texas, 1980, pp. 44-45)

Accompanying the reproductions of Moran’s work were a series of maps related to the expedition, together with Ferdinand Hayden’s recordings of the unique geology of the area. Beyond Moran’s own interest in the view seen in Castle Geyser, with a strikingly similar version to the present work featured prominently in the portfolio, Hayden dedicated considerable prose to the scene. Hayden’s words uniquely build on the intensity of Moran’s visual representation, further transporting the viewer to this remarkable natural wonder: “The scene as we look out upon it on a cool frosty morning surpasses description. All about us rise columns of steam mingled with numerous fountain jets. The delicate wreaths of steam extend far up into the heavens…Among the great geysers the “Castle,” represented in the picture, plays an important part…The eruption commences with a succession of jets of water and steam, which reach a height of two hundred feet….The noises are indescribable. It sounds as though the Castle had a thunder-storm in its interior, and to those noises of elemental war add the sounds of several steamboats letting off steam, and we can form some idea of the sounds heard during the eruption of the geyser. The entire eruption lasts about an hour and a half.” (as quoted in N.K. Anderson, Thomas Moran, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 336) Hayden, however, recognized where his own abilities to capture the scene fell short and Moran’s artistic talents had to take over, reporting, “In front of the Castle is the beautiful blue spring, which has been given the fanciful name of ‘Circe’s Boudoir.’ Words must fail to give an idea of the exquisite beauty of this spring.” (as quoted in Thomas Moran, p. 336)

The importance of works such as Castle Geyser is thus manifold. Firstly, they are unrivaled in their technique within the scope of early American art. More importantly, the period success and enduring appreciation for Moran’s unique ability to accurately, and emotionally, convey the awesomeness of these American natural landmarks, is confirmed by their impact on our nation’s land preservation policies. Admired by sophisticated patrons of his day, and broadly reproduced and consumed by a vast audience of fascinated Americans, both then and now, Moran’s direct impressions recorded from his explorations of Yellowstone remain one of the most historically significant and visually compelling series of American Art.

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