Though Moran first visited the Grand Canyon with John Wesley Powell on an expedition trip in 1873, the natural beauty and picturesque quality compelled him to return many times throughout his career. He wrote of his fascination with the Grand Canyon, "Its forests of cedar and pine interspersed with aspens and dwarfish oak are weird in the extreme; its tremendous architecture fills one with wonder and admiration, and its color, forms and atmosphere are so ravishingly beautiful that, however well traveled one may be, a new world is opened to him when he gazes into the Grand Canyon of Arizona." (as quoted in T. Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, Norman, Oklahoma, 1966, p. 216)
Moran found continual inspiration in the unique light, color and topography of the Southwest, taking it as the subject of many of his most accomplished paintings. Works such as A Side Canyon, Grand Canyon of Arizona reveal the artist's passionate attachment and profound knowledge of the future national park. He wrote, "Of all places on earth the great canyon of Arizona is the most inspiring in its pictorial possibilities." (as quoted in J.L. Kinsey, "Thomas Moran's Surveys of Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon: The Coalition of Art, Business, and Government" in A.R.Morand, et al., Splendors of the American West: Thomas Moran's Art of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, Birmingham, Alabama, 1990, p. 37)
Painted in 1915, A Side Canyon, Grand Canyon of Arizona depicts a striking interior view of the chasm. This commanding picture captures a rare and intimate vision of the gorge and manifests Moran's mastery of light, color and composition as well as his artistic virtuoso. Unlike many of his Western pictures, which depict expansive landscapes, in the present work Moran chooses to render the scene from the low vantage point of the canyon floor to enhance the sheer, upward trajectory of the immense gorge walls. The small sliver of crystalline sky furthers the sense of enclosure while alluding to the expanse beyond. This distinct perspective conveys a sense of familiarity that is absent in many of the artist's large-scale works.
In A Side Canyon, Grand Canyon of Arizona Moran effortlessly integrates the enduring influence of British romantic painter Joseph Mallord William Turner and Swiss landscape painter Alexandre Calame with a unique sensibility and approach to the American West. A brilliant manipulation of light and shadow intensifies the depth and complexity of the view. While sun enters the chasm through the diminutive opening, it also appears to emanate from the base of the gorge as a fiery light reflects off the sandstone walls. Moran uses an authoritative modulation of reds, oranges and yellows to capture the illumination and its effects on the rough sandstone. This radiance is juxtaposed with the span of rich, brown rocks in the foreground that are cloaked in shadow. Moran masterfully combines this variation in palette with an intricate modulation of paint surface to convey the various textures of the interior. A Side Canyon, Grand Canyon of Arizona is a masterwork of Moran's mature style and represents the artist at the height of his capabilities.
This painting will be included in Stephen L. Good and Phyllis Braff's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.