Thomas Moran.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-115323).


Moran, Thomas (12 Jan. 1837-25 Aug. 1926), artist, was born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, the son of Thomas Moran, a weaver, and Mary Higson. In 1844 Moran left England with his mother and siblings to join his father, who had recently immigrated to Philadelphia. After an elementary education, he was indentured in 1853 to a wood engraving firm, a position he left in 1856. Moran then worked closely with his elder brother Edward Moran, also a painter, and with him became an informal student of Philadelphia marine artist James Hamilton. Hamilton may have introduced them to the work of J. M. W. Turner and to a belief in close study of nature as the foundation for painting. Moran exhibited landscapes at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts for the first time in 1856, was elected an academician in 1861, and continued to exhibit there through 1905. In the summer of 1860 he began an enduring practice of travel with a journey to the Pictured Rocks on Lake Superior. During 1861-1862 Moran and his brother Edward lived in London, where the former devoted himself to a study of Turner's work.

Moran returned to Philadelphia in the summer of 1862 and soon after began to teach at the Philadelphia School of Design for Women in order to supplement his income from the sale of pictures. In 1863 he married Mary Nimmo (Mary Nimmo Moran), who later described herself as a lifelong student of her husband; they had three children. Moran and his wife formed an artistic partnership. They frequently traveled together, worked closely as printmakers, and created an artistic domestic environment that inspired one of their children to become an artist.

In June 1866 Moran traveled with his family to Europe and settled in Paris for nine months to paint and to study art. Although he sought out J. B. C. Corot and enjoyed an afternoon of discussion with the aged artist, Moran tried to distance himself from European models in order to paint American subjects in what he deemed an American style. The Morans concluded their European trip with a stay in Italy and traveled over the Alps back to Paris, where Moran's burgeoning reputation was acknowledged by the exhibition of two of his paintings, Children of the Mountain (1866, Anschutz Collection, Denver) and Autumn on the Conemaugh, in Pennsylvania (location unknown), in the American section of the Fine Arts Department at the Exposition Universelle. He also showed Une forêt en Amérique (location unknown) in the concurrently running Salon of 1867.

After returning home from Europe, Moran turned for inspiration to American romantic literature, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's The Song of Hiawatha (1855). He set literary subjects in landscapes that reveal a close observation of nature and yet remain otherworldly, as in The Spirit of the Indian (1869, Philbrook Art Center, Tulsa, Okla.).

While in Philadelphia, Moran began what became a long association with Scribner's Monthly, one of whose editors, Richard Watson Gilder, had been a boyhood friend. Moran's illustrations appeared in Scribner's beginning with the first issue in November 1870, but his greatest opportunity was a commission to illustrate N. P. Langford's series of articles on the newly explored Yellowstone area of the Wyoming Territory, which appeared in the magazine in May and June 1871. Moran's career took a dramatic turn with this assignment, and he asked to join Ferdinand V. Hayden's governmental expedition to the Yellowstone. From the last week in July through about 10 August 1871 Moran and the expedition's photographer, William Henry Jackson, collaborated in selecting scenes to paint and photograph as they explored what soon after became major sites of Yellowstone National Park.

To finance the trip Moran had borrowed money from Scribner's publisher Roswell Smith (he used his painting Children of the Mountain as collateral) and from financier Jay Cooke, one of the directors of the Northern Pacific Railroad, to whom he promised watercolors of the region. Through his ties to the publishing industry, Moran established connections with eastern investors in the business of art and exploration. Editors were anxious to sell magazines, railroad investors were eager to encourage travel along their routes, and explorers needed increased governmental funding to continue their work. Each wanted imagery to enhance the texts they published, which, in part, were intended to convince legislators and the public of the value of expansionist policies. It was a mutually beneficial arrangement since publishing, rail, and exploration businesses sought to authenticate their texts with pictures, and Moran saw a chance to further his career by being the first artist in Yellowstone, a region that had become legendary almost overnight. Although other painters had traveled in the West, Albert Bierstadt's western travels were the only ones that had been widely reported in the press and that had attracted the patronage of railroad barons. Moran may have hoped to identify himself with Yellowstone as Bierstadt had linked his success to Yosemite.

Moran returned to the East at the end of the summer and by late autumn 1871 had moved his family to Newark, New Jersey, to be closer to New York City's publishing industry, from which he anticipated increased work. Established in a new studio, Moran used his own field sketches and Jackson's photographs as resources for illustrations for several periodicals (among them Scribner's, Aldine, and Harper's Monthly) and for watercolors for exhibition and sale. With his highly finished watercolors, which he often sold as pieces in a series, Moran gained a range of new patrons, including Mrs. George Franklin Edmunds, the wife of the senator from Vermont who advocated passage of the Yellowstone bill, and William Blackmore, a British investor in western land schemes and one of the principal financiers of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway.

Moran also painted a large (7'×12') canvas titled The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone (1872, U.S. Department of the Interior, on extended loan to the National Museum of American Art). The work, which was the first landscape the government hung in the Capitol, was purchased in June 1872, just three months after Congress voted to establish the Yellowstone area as the country's first national park.

A large number of commissions in 1872 prevented Moran from accepting either Hayden's invitation to spend a second summer in the Yellowstone or the offer of John Wesley Powell, another leader of the so-called "Great Surveys," to accompany his Colorado River expedition. But in August 1872 Moran and his wife made a hurried trip west, primarily to see the Great Salt Lake and to sketch scenes along the rail route. They also made a side trip to Yosemite Valley, by then a lively tourist area made popular in part by Bierstadt's paintings.

By 1873 Moran was in demand as an exploration artist. His work had been widely published, and The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone had been favorably reviewed in newspapers and journals. Major Powell asked Moran to join his expedition's photographer, John K. Hillers, on his governmental survey of the Rocky Mountain region along the Rio Virgin and the Colorado River in the summer of 1873. This arrangement served each of them: Moran had reported an "intense desire to see the Grand Cañon [of the Colorado]" (Moran to Hayden, 28 June 1873, National Archives), and Powell needed illustrations to accompany the narratives of his explorations.

Moran discovered an ideally dramatic theme for a new painting in a ferocious thunderstorm that he and J. E. Colburn, a writer for the New York Times, witnessed when they accompanied Powell to the plateau bearing the major's name. The Chasm of the Colorado (1873-1874, U.S. Department of the Interior, on extended loan to the National Museum of American Art) is a forbidding scene that repels rather than entices a viewer's entry. Moran departed from the precedent he had set in The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone, where he lured viewers through a shadowed foreground with engaging details to join two figures at an overlook in contemplation of the sunlit canyon. In contrast, by propelling viewers of Chasm directly into the picture's turbulent drama, Moran emphasized the river's simultaneously destructive and regenerative forces and echoed Powell's belief in the necessity of acknowledging the antithesis of a river raging through otherwise arid land. By July 1874, when Congress purchased the Chasm to hang next to the Yellowstone in the Senate lobby, Moran had successfully challenged Bierstadt's domination of western landscape painting, and in doing so he propounded his ideas about the past and future of the West to a national audience.

In August 1874 Moran joined another of Hayden's expeditions, this time for the sole purpose of seeing the Mountain of the Holy Cross in Colorado. Moran apparently yearned to be the first painter to reach this remote site (in an area that Hayden's men had surveyed and photographed only the previous year), and Hayden must have anticipated another monumental Moran canvas to provide documentation and support for his ambitious surveys. From the few sketches Moran drew under arduous climbing conditions, his vivid memory of the site, and Jackson's photograph of the year before, he created a composite view in Mountain of the Holy Cross (1875, Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum, Los Angeles), which won a gold medal at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Moran's journey to the mountain resembled a pilgrimage to a holy site, and the painting, in which clouds part to reveal the mountain's deep, snow-filled gorges in the shape of a cross, reinforced popular views of this inaccessible place as one that embodied the Christian sanctity of American land, a subject that had preoccupied many painters before him. Moran sent Mountain of the Holy Cross on tour in England, where in 1880 it was purchased by William A. Bell, a founder of the Denver and Rio Grande Railway. Bell displayed it prominently in his house in Manitou, Colorado, and made it available for the public to see.

Eighteen seventy-six marked a high point in Moran's career, with publication of his watercolors in Louis Prang's portfolio of fifteen chromolithographs, The Yellowstone Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah. This deluxe edition marked the first time Moran's published work appeared in color. Prang engaged Hayden to authenticate the scientific accuracy of the published images and to write the accompanying commentary. The portfolio was heralded as a superb technical achievement and contributed dramatically to Moran's reputation.

As he continued to travel and sketch in the American West, Moran responded to opportunities for other illustration commissions and sought out new subjects. His extensive and varied travels in the United States and abroad mirrored the practices of other American artists in the decades following the Civil War. Frederic E. Church, whom Moran greatly admired, Martin Johnson Heade, and Bierstadt, Moran's rival in the realm of western landscape, all traveled as ceaselessly. In 1877 and again in 1887 and 1891 Moran and his wife visited Fort George Island at the mouth of the St. Johns River in Florida. In 1881 Moran and his family traveled to Niagara Falls. They spent most of 1882 in the British Isles and for three months stayed in London, where they met critic John Ruskin, from which followed a brief correspondence. In 1883 Moran took a sketching trip to Mexico, the first of several visits. Journeys to Venice, Italy, in 1886 and 1890 provided him visual experiences that inspired some of his most dramatically colorful and ethereal views, somewhat reminiscent of Turner's.

Moran moved his family to New York City in 1881 and participated even more fully in the art world there. His memberships in artistic social organizations included the Century Association, the Lotos Club, and the Salmagundi Club. He also belonged to the American Society of Painters in Water Colors and was a founding member in 1877 of the New York Etching Club and of the Society of American Artists. Moran was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in 1881, a full academician in 1884, and exhibited there from 1866 through 1900. In 1881 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers in London, and in 1889 he served on the jury for the American entries to the Paris Exposition Universelle. In addition to an award presented at the Centennial Exposition, Moran's work won medals at the 1891 Pan-American Exposition in St. Louis, the 1893 Chicago World's Columbian Exposition, the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, and the 1902 American Art Society in Philadelphia.

On a visit to East Hampton, New York, in 1878 Moran took up etching, and over the next decade he enjoyed critical and financial success with his prints, culminating in 1889 at the Klackner Gallery in New York in a joint exhibition with his wife, who was gaining recognition as one of the country's finest etchers. Mary Nimmo Moran was accepted as the first woman member of both the New York Etching Club and the Royal Society of Painter-Etchers and Engravers. Her work won a gold medal at the World's Columbian Exposition in 1893. After 1878 the Morans spent part of each summer in East Hampton, and in 1884 they designed and had built a house and studio on property they had purchased two years before.

By providing images for railroad pamphlets in return for funding for his first western trip and gratis travel, Moran entwined his career with the post-Civil War growth of the rail industry. Beginning in 1853 leaders of each of the four governmentally funded Pacific Railroad Surveys hired artists to accompany their parties and to provide images for publications of prospective routes (twelve such illustrated volumes appeared between 1856 and 1861). But it was not until after completion of the transcontinental rail route in 1869 that the rail companies fully exploited visual advertising in posters, pamphlets, and guidebooks dedicated to promoting the scenic wonders of the West. Moran was closely connected to the Denver and Rio Grande Railway, an association that had begun in 1872 with the sale of watercolors to Blackmore and continued in 1881 with a special train trip organized to provide Moran, Jackson, and writer Ernest Ingersoll with comfortable access to sites in Colorado and northern New Mexico. They, in turn, were expected to extol the area's scenic wonders in illustrations for forthcoming publications. Many of Moran's views of Colorado were reproduced in the Denver and Rio Grande's promotional literature during the 1880s and 1890s, none more often than his Mountain of the Holy Cross.

Other rail companies also sponsored trips for Moran, including the Union Pacific Railroad (through Donner Pass, Lake Tahoe, the mountains of northeastern Nevada, and the Wasatch Mountains of Utah) in 1879, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad in 1881, and the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad in 1892. After 1901 the Santa Fe promoted its exclusive spur to the Grand Canyon by sponsoring Moran's trips there and by purchasing his paintings, from which they made souvenir reproductive prints as well as illustrations for their guidebooks. In the early years of the twentieth century Moran's name was linked with the Grand Canyon in the same way it had been with Yellowstone in the 1870s.

Moran did not limit his travel to areas accessible by rail. He made several arduous journeys to remote areas in the West, among them the Tetons in 1879 and Devil's Tower in 1892. Moran published an account of this last trip, made with Jackson, in the Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine (1894).

Following his wife's death in 1899 Moran traveled almost every summer. He returned to favorite spots, especially the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, Venice, and England. In 1916 he began to spend winters in Santa Barbara, California, and he moved there permanently in 1922.

During the last decades of his life, in which he produced a large body of work, Moran continued his practice of painting the subjects that had established his reputation, particularly Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon, and Green River, Wyoming. He simultaneously broadened his range with a monumental painting of icebergs, Spectres from the North (1890, Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, Tulsa, Okla.). Moran's paintings did not acknowledge development in the West, either the increasing public use of the parks or the growth of towns that the railroad had opened. Rather, as revealed by his devotion for more than four decades to the subject of the cliffs of Green River, he presented a pristine wilderness inhabited, if at all, by explorers and American Indians who are obviously awed by the vision of untouched wilderness, as Moran intended his public to be.

Moran wrote little concerning his aesthetic principles, but the few statements he made help to reconcile the apparent contradiction between replication and invention in his landscapes. He stated, "I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are towards idealisation. . . . Topography in Art is valueless" (G. W. Sheldon, "American Painters: Thomas Moran and Joseph Rusling Meeker," Art Journal, n.s., 5 [Feb. 1879], p. 43), but also, "I have to have knowledge. I must know the geology. I must know the rocks and the trees and the atmosphere and the mountain torrents and the birds that fly in the blue ether above me" (Thomas Moran, "Knowledge a Prime Requisite in Art," Brush and Pencil 12 [Apr. 1903], p. 14). Moran harmonized these two statements in his own work, in which the foundation of firsthand experience in nature is subsumed in the final, imaginative painting constructed wholly in the studio. So even as he called for scientists to verify the geographical accuracy of his painted rocks, Moran allowed himself quite literally to move mountains in his compositions. This is most notable in Mountain of the Holy Cross, whose foreground waterfall is in actuality on the opposite side of the mountain yet whose "truth," Moran believed, went beyond literal transcription to an expression of a natural Christianity.

Moran's resignation in 1879 from the Society of American Artists signaled his aesthetic separation from the younger artists who comprised most of the society's membership. Beginning in the late 1870s, moody, atmospheric, French-inspired painting held sway among the avant-garde and dominated critical writing on art. Moran was hostile toward the newer movements in European and American art, deriding Barbizon painting and impressionism. Nonetheless, his landscapes of nonwestern subjects, such as those of East Hampton and the few he devoted to urban industry, evince a lyrical harmony critics recognized as different from the obvious drama of his western scenes, which were coming under increased criticism. But since Moran's career had been built and was sustained on images of celebrated western sites, he continued to be categorized as a traditional western artist. He seemed only to confirm this association by becoming a founding member in 1901 of the Society of the Men Who Paint the West and by being named an honorary member of Painters of the West in 1924. His loss of support among prominent critics did nothing to quell popular interest in his printed and painted work.

Moran, unlike the critics, did not divide his work into categories. Throughout his career he viewed his paintings as embodiments of essential characteristics of the places he interpreted: the fantastic geologic formations of Yellowstone, the almost incomprehensible gorge of the Grand Canyon of the Colorado, the aquatic dream of Venice, and the lyrical atmosphere of East Hampton.

Through government patronage and widespread reproduction of his work, Moran's reputation extended beyond the small group of people who could afford to purchase his paintings. His monumental pictures of naturally dramatic sites and his easel paintings that evoke a land of perpetually pristine beauty shaped popular perception of the West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Increasing scholarly attention is being given to the popularization of his western images in order to understand the role the works played in endorsing expansionist values. Yet other examples of Moran's oeuvre, such as his field sketches, poetic landscapes of eastern Long Island and Venice, and etchings, should also stand with his oils of the West in any assessment of his seventy-year career, sustained in productivity until the last months of his life. He died in Santa Barbara.



Moran's papers are at the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art in Tulsa, Okla., and at the East Hampton Free Library in East Hampton, N.Y. Some letters have been published in Amy O. Bassford, ed., Home-Thoughts from Afar: Letters of Thomas Moran to Mary Nimmo Moran (1967), with an introduction and notes by Fritiof Fryxell. The most important source for biographical information is Thurman Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains (1966). On his western work see William H. Truettner, " 'Scenes of Majesty and Enduring Interest': Thomas Moran Goes West," Art Bulletin 58, no. 2 (June 1976): 241-59; Carol Clark, Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West (1980); and Joni Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West (1992). On his watercolors and drawings see Thomas S. Fern, The Drawings and Watercolors of Thomas Moran (1837-1926) (1976); and on his prints see Anne Morand and Nancy Friese, The Prints of Thomas Moran in the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, Tulsa, Oklahoma (1986). An obituary is in the Washington, D.C., Evening Star, 27 Aug. 1926.

Carol Clark

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American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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