Thomas Moran first travelled to the West in 1871, via the Union Pacific Railroad to Green River City, on his way to join Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden and his surveying expedition of Yellowstone, Wyoming Territory. The painter at once inspired and was inspired by an upswell of interest in the region. The American public’s imagination was captivated by stories and images from this distant, and still relatively wild, part of the country. “[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)
Upon disembarking from the train in Green River City, 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 stayed briefly in Green River City before setting off for Yellowstone, but not before making several small-scale field sketches with assiduous notations that he would later adapt into larger-scale works 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.
Castle Butte, Green River, Wyoming spectacularly captures the domineering silhouette of the most prominent formation within the area’s geological formations. In soft tones of richly painted yellow and orange hues, Moran skillfully captures varying textures in the scene, using a variegated paint surface to convey the butte’s rough sandstone façade. Contrasting the warm landforms, the sky is a bright, crystalline blue, and acts as a backdrop that further highlights the cliffs’ majesty. At the base of the orange and violet cliffs, contrasting rich, deep greens of foliage ground the composition. As the precipice pushes forward and upward from this point, a placid river snakes back through the panorama, acting as a cool counterbalance to the fiery formations. Together with the cliffs in the distance, the river leads the viewer through the landscape, underscoring its expansiveness while conjuring visions of an untamed wilderness.
In reality, Moran consciously omitted the presence of man and industrial encroachment in his depictions of the area, acknowledging instead its pure natural majesty. Paintings like Castle Butte, Green River, Wyoming were so appealing not because they served as literal transcriptions of the landscape, but because they spoke to viewers' romantic conceptions of the West. Today they remain icons that capture a dynamic moment in our nation’s expansion and a potent vision of a distant time and a unique, distinctly American place.