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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Thomas Moran

One of the quickest ways to start an argument among artists is to proclaim some famous master the "greatest" portrait painter, or still-life painter, or landscape painter, or whatever, who ever lived. Of course greatness can be measured in many ways--influence, economic success during the artist's lifetime, current prices at auction, number of works completed, and probably a couple more criteria. When he died in 1926, the 89-year-old Thomas Moran was dubbed the "Dean of American Landscape Painters" which certainly puts him in the running as the "greatest" American Landscape Painter. He has two huge landscapes hanging in the Capitol building in Washington, one, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and the second, The Chasm of the Colorado. And no American museum collection would be complete without one of his works.  Moreover, he was so prolific every museum in the country could have one of his works with some left over for private collections.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,
1873-74, Thomas Moran

Thomas Moran was born in 1837 in Bolton, England, a suburb of Manchester, where the Industrial Revolution first erupted in the 1840s with the introduction of power looms, which displaced a large number of factory workers like Thomas' father, Thomas Moran Sr. He took his family to this country where his son came of age and was apprenticed to an engraver.  Following this apprenticeship, he, in effect, served a second with his older brother Edward, who ran a successful painting studio in Philadelphia. There young Thomas came under the influence of James Hamilton, who had been dubbed an American Turner. Having studied Turner from reproductions, in 1861 the two brothers escaped the Civil War and went to England where Thomas studied the work of J.M.W. Turner face to face on museum walls.

Chasm of the Colorado, 1872, Thomas Moran
 A decade later, he was to put this study to good use as he joined the Hayden expedition to Yellowstone where his real life's work began. So skinny he had to have a pillow on his saddle to withstand the rigors of the journey, Moran's watercolor's first saw publication in Scribner's Magazine before being worked into the enormous masterpieces hanging in the Capitol. When he grew to old to trek the western mountains he established a studio near the beach on Long Island where his interests shifted to the eastern mountainous waves and shipwrecks, often within walking distance from his home.

The Cliff Dwellers, 1899, Thomas Moran
 Around the turn of the century, as western travel became easier on an old man's bones, Moran again went west painting extensively in Arizona, New Mexico, and Southern California, such works as Cliff Dwellers showing the pueblos of the ancient native Americans.  While others might nominate Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, or Winslow Homer as the "greatest" American Landscape painter; for sheer breadth, depth, and beauty of his undertakings, my vote goes to Moran.

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