Thomas Moran's watercolors of Yellowstone rank among the most significant accomplishments in the history of Western American art and in the history of the American West in general. With their delicate and precise renderings, they mark a new level of virtuosity of the fledgling nation's artists, and in their extreme accuracy, they helped to establish one of the nation's best-loved resources. In addition, their widespread publication in the form of chromolithographs satisfied the infinite thirst of the late nineteenth century American public for images of the West, and aided in the establishment of a national artistic identity by distributing images of the vast western expanse to the homes of its citizens.
The stunning and remarkable terrain of the American West engrossed the American public of the late nineteenth century. Curious to see the territory firsthand, in 1871 Thomas Moran joined a geologic expedition headed by Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden. Indeed, the course of Thomas Moran's artistic career is rarely addressed without mentioning the renowned Hayden Expedition. Stunned by what he observed in the Yellowstone territory while traveling with Hayden, Moran created some of the most exceptional works of his career.
Sketches from the Hayden expedition provided the basis for some of Moran's most celebrated Western landscapes. Upon his return Moran was interviewed, and according to the writer, "Mr. Moran assured me that they fall modestly short of the vast fantastic freaks of Nature which they attempt to represent Mr. Moran says he could only describe it as a country bespattered with rainbows. It seemed unreally strange, like a dream-land, and he could hardly believe at times the he was not in a dream instead of an exploring expedition. He fears that he will need strong affidavits to defend his pictures against the charge of exaggeration. The wonderful brilliancy of his mineral specimens, confirms, however, on a small scale, both description and picture. It is a very happy fortune that his terra incognita is to be introduced to the eyes of men by an artist of Mr. Moran's extraordinary genius for natural scenery.'" (N. K. Anderson, Thomas Moran, Washington, DC, 1997, p. 52)
Thomas Moran's resultant watercolors are characterized by extremely delicate gradations of tone and careful, precise renderings of topography, as evident in The Southern Arm of the Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming Territory. Adhering to the principle of careful observation of nature, Moran captured the various elements of the awe-inspiring territory -- the snow-capped mountains, soaring fir trees, jagged rocks, crystalline water, birds in formation, dramatic sky and magnificent rainbow. They are at once topographically correct and successful as artistic compositions.
Morans's watercolors were not only of interest to the curious American public, but to the Federal Government as well. In 1871, the American Congress was deliberating the creation of what was to become Yellowstone Park, the first national park in the United States. "Years later William Henry Jackson wrote that during the Yellowstone debate 'the watercolors of Thomas Moran and the photographs of the Geology Survey [Jackson's] were the most important exhibits brought before the Committee'; he quoted historian Hiram M. Chittenden's supporting opinion: 'They did a work which no other agency could do and doubtless convinced every one who saw them that the regions where such wonders existed should be carefully preserved to the people forever.'" (Thomas Moran, p. 53)
Of equal importance to the watercolors themselves are the reproductions in chromolithograph that were published by Louis Prang. Indeed, "of all Moran's watercolor patrons during his lifetime and after, none had more public impact than Louis Prang. His patronage offered new opportunities for the public to see Moran's original watercolors, but through Prang's chromolithographic reproductions one thousand copies of fifteen watercolors were printed and sold... 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. 44-5)
The importance of Moran's Western watercolors are manifold. Not only are they unrivaled in their technique and skill, but they aided the American government's decision to set aside a vast area of its natural resources for the eternal benefit of its citizens. Through the use of lithography, they brought the American west into the homes of its citizens, and in doing so, united the young nation through pride.
The following inscription by the artist is mounted to the reverse:
The Southern Arm of the Yellowstone Lake, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming Ter.
The Yellowstone Lake at the Head of the Yellowstone River is a magnificent sheet of water & the highest lake in N. America, being nearly 8000 feet above the sea. It has an average breadth of 20 miles & is enclosed by the Rocky Mountains, whose peaks retain perpetual snow. Placed in the midst of a great volcanic basin, it was probably the Great Crater in ages past. It has a depth of 400 feet. Great systems of hot springs are still active on the very surface of the lake, & even under its waters, the Calcaneous deposits of which constantly make encroachments on its boundaries. A great variety of wild animals & game make it a hunter's paradise. Several islands dot its surface giving additional charm to the eye. The Great Geyser Basins lie but fourteen miles to the North-west of the Lake.
This work will be included in Stephen L. Good's and Phyllis Braff's forthcoming catalogue raisonné of the artist's work.