Thomas Moran first painted the Green River in Wyoming on his initial trip west in 1871. Arriving that year in Corinne, Utah, on the Union Pacific Railroad, the artist traveled north by horse and coach to join the United States Geological Survey expedition near Virginia City, Montana. From there, led by Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, the expedition explored the Yellowstone region where Moran would create some of his most famous images. It was, however, the Green River and its spectacular cliffs that inspired his first majestic images of the Western wilderness. The moment is recorded in a watercolor from 1871 on which he inscribed the title, First Sketch Made in the West at Green River, Wyoming (Gilcrease Institute, Tulsa, Oklahoma). Executed in watercolor, the work depicts a view similar to the present oil, with the region's towering buttes silhouetted against the sky and richly painted in orange and yellow hues. The subject was considered one of the west's most dramatic vistas. "Rising dramatically from the desolate plain," notes one historian, "the cliffs, as John Wesley Powell wrote in 1875, 'are all very soft and friable, and are strangely carved by the rains and streams. The fantastic rain-sculpture imitates architectural forms, and suggests rude and weird statuary...'" (Clement Conger, et al., Treasures of State, Fine and Decorative Arts in the Diplomatic Reception Rooms of the U. S. Department of State, New York, 1991, p. 462, illustration plate 311, for a related work). Moran returned again in 1879, painting several additional sketches in watercolor, and he continued to paint major oils of the Green River into the 1880s and later years.
As noted by the art historian, Nancy Anderson, while Moran did not linger in Green River on his first visit, "he did secure a number of sketches of Citadel and Castle Rocks-the enormous buttes that dwarfed the burgeoning town below-and these he put to very good use, later, when he returned east. Unlike Yellowstone, the landscape of Green River had not been 'previewed' for eastern viewers through illustrations published in Scribner's. The multicolored, castellated buttes were an entirely fresh subject for paintings. Moran made the most of this opportunity, claiming the landscape as his own through a series of paintings completed over a period of forty years. Among the most successful and revealing of these is Green River Cliffs, Wyoming [Private Collection, Colorado, sold Christie's, 30 November 1994, lot 40]. Broad in its vista, the composition includes a sparsely foliated foreground through which a caravan of Indians makes its way toward a village on the horizon. In the far distance are the cliffs of Green River, cast in hues of orange, lavender, and pink. Wisps of clouds, also tinged with the pink of the setting sun, dust the sky." (Thomas Moran, Washington, DC, 1998, pp. 48-49)
The present painting is a newly discovered work. Dated 1878, it is one of the artist's earlier realizations of the Green River landscape in oil, and it relates closely to his other Green River paintings which follow the basic structure of this archetypal composition: a band of Native Americans mounted on horseback riding into the distance, and the entire landscape suffused with a color-saturated, atmospheric light. He went on to produce five versions on a large scale of this particular scene, featuring the impressive buttes, which dominate the landscape. A contemporary of the artist describes one of these closely related works: "Mr. Moran employs colour with great mastery; there is no thinness or weakness evident in his paintings. The texture of rocks and foliage is carefully and truthfully reproduced. He is partial to the brighter aspects of nature, and succeeds in representing them without conveying the impression of garishness. A painting he has recently completed shows a sublime, isolated peak, cloven in the centre, that soars like a Titanic feudal tower above the banks of the Green River, a tributary of the Colorado. The colours of this natural fortress are vivid copper, streaked with vermilion, and merging into leaden grey. It is painted sun-smitten against the foreboding gloom of a coming storm. The broad river flows grandly at its base through an endless plain that fades off like the ocean into the infinite. In the foreground a troop of Indian warriors, in the gay accoutrements of battle, are guiding their spirited ponies through long sere herbage to the river's brink. The colours in this painting, with the contrasted greys and reds, are very striking, and yet are so admirably harmonised that one is convinced without hesitation that the scene must be strictly true to nature." (Samuel G. W. Benjamin, "A Pioneer of the Palette: Thomas Moran," Magazine of Art, February, 1882, 5: p. 92, as quoted in N. Anderson, Thomas Moran, p. 131)
A reference in the artist's ledgers likely refers to the present painting, noting his gift of a picture of the Green River measuring 12 by 36 inches to Thomas Donaldson of Philadelphia, the artist's home at the time. (Old Book of Lists, Ledger, 4026.4042, Gilcrease Institute of Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma).
Recently, Carol Clark noted the broader significance of Moran's western paintings in the development of public interest in the West. "Moran's western canvases and watercolors," she wrote, "depicted areas of great significance to the American public, they conferred historical legitimacy to a land lacking human associations and presented a stage for the unfolding drama of a nation's future. Moran's American landscape could also rise in status by association with historical themes. As America viewed her land, especially the West, as part of a natural historic past destined to determine a great future, Americans began to accept landscape painting in oil and watercolor as an integral and formative element of this destiny." (Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West, Austin, Texas, 1980, p. 35).
This painting will be included in Stephen L. Good and Phyllis Braff's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Moran's work.