The Lure of the West

Thomas Moran (dark shirt)
with J.E. Colburn and Kaibab Paiute Boy
Photo by Jack Hillers, 1873.

Thomas Moran was, at the beginning of his storied career, an immigrant from England recently settled in the United States. He and his family had settled in New York where Moran sought work as an artist. A talented illustrator and exquisite colorist, Moran was soon hired as an illustrator at Scribner's Monthly. By the close of the 1860's, he had been appointed chief illustrator of the magazine, serendipitously landing the position which would allow him access to a prosperous future as one of the premier painters of the American landscape. As a result of the powerful images created from his travels with what are now known as "The Great Surveys"-- Yellowstone, The Grand Canyon, Yosemite Valley, and The Mountain of the Holy Cross in Colorado--Moran would earn the nickname "Father of the National Park System" because of the tremendous influence his paintings had on the emergence of Western tourism and on the members of Congress who resolved to set aside vast areas of the West as National Parks.4 Stephen Tyng Mather, a Director of the Park Service in the 1920's, said of Moran upon the artist's death in 1927 that he, "more than any other artist has made us acquainted with the Great West..." He made Americans see the beauties of their national heritage and prove to the plain citizen "that he did not have to leave his native shores to look on something more wonderful than the Alps." (Wilkins 6)

During the late 1860's and early 1870's, all the monthlies--Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, and Scribner's--were competing with each other for reportage of frontier tales and expedition updates. Scribner's especially dedicated column space to Western stories. In 1871, Scribner's acquired a story called "The Wonders of Yellowstone" and assigned Moran to illustrate this tale from the Montana territory by a man named Nathaniel P. Langford, a participant in the Washburn-Doane expedition to Yellowstone in 1870. Captivated by the utterly fantastic sights Langford described, Moran grew eager to see this odd territory for himself. When Moran heard that renowned geolgist Ferdinand Hayden was organizing a government survey to the headwaters of the Yellowstone River which would depart in the summer of 1871, he formulated a strategy to include himself. Determined to make his way West, Moran solicited financial support from Scribner's in exchange for sketches and regular reports from the survey. The managers were skeptical, and did not agree to support his passage, but Jay Cooke, Philadelphia tycoon and president of the Northern Pacific Railroad, agreed to loan Moran $500 and secured him a place on the Hayden team. Moran made his arrangements and set off on the Union Pacific to join Hayden in Virginia City, Montana.

Little did Moran realize that not only had he succumbed to the maneuverings of a number of powerful men, but he also stumbled into one of the grandest industrial and political schemes of the Nineteenth century and created his own place in American history. First of all, Nathaniel Langford, who was campaigning for governor of the Montana territory, had been solicited to write the book by none other than Norther Pacific Railroad President Jay Cooke, who arranged for its publication and coached the author on his many lectures throughout the East--lectures which ended with praises for the Northern Pacific Railroad's planned track through southern Montana, just above Yellowstone's North Entrance. Langford's work had additional inspiration as well since he was brother-in-law of two of Northern Pacific's largest investors, James Wickes Taylor and William Marshall, governor of Minnesota, the state where the railroad originated. Ferdinand Hayden's expedition was supported by government funding, but since funds were limited, he relied on the generosity of the rail magnates to receive free transporation to the west for his party. Additionally, he aspired to lead future expeditions and, with the support of Jay Cooke behind him, his chances were good. When Moran presented the letter from Cooke, Hayden was more than willing to accept the artist into his already crowded group because with Cooke's favor and Moran's talents to portray the wonders of the party's findings every month in Scribner's, Hayden's expedition would receive ample publicity. Moran, of course, desired fame and security as an artist and recognized that Cooke's backing, Hayden's acquaintance, and widely publicized accounts of Yellowstone would thrust his paintings into the public spotlight. With every player in his proper place, Hayden's expedition departed Virginia City for Yellowstone with Moran and famed landscape photographer William Jackson in tow. 5

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

Moran and Jackson set out to record the beauty of the west visually, but with the technical difficulty of photography at the time, Jackson's photos had to be chosen carefully. Moran's ability to sketch wherever and whenever he liked facilitated the artistic proceedings immeasurably, but the two often worked together to select the ideal vantage points and perspectives. Moran's masterpiece from the Yellowstone expedition is entitled "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone," which is his rendition of the spectacular view of the Lower Falls through the deep chasm of yellowish-red sulfur-stained rock which earned Yellowstone its name. Of all the sights he saw in the Yellowstone Valley, this area of the park captured him most. He lingered at the canyon, sketching from every possible angle, studying the geology of the area and the way the light played on the rocks to capture the exquisite colors of the gorge. He finally settled on the perspective from what is now known as "Artist's Point," and with the aid of Jackson's photographs and the memory of his own sensory impressions, he created several sketches of the view before leaving the party at the end of the summer. He carried his bulging sketchbook with him back to Virginia City and then home to New York, finally settling in a studio in Newark, New Jersey to complete the painting. His memory had retained all the color and drama of the setting, and his sketches had accurately captured the look and textures of the region. He completed the painting in two months, and then exhibited it in a grand showing at Clinton Hall in New York City.

Detail from "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone"

On May 2, 1872, at the Clinton Hall showing, the New York Tribune reported that the elite of New York turned out in their finest for the exhibition. Directors of the Northwest Pacific Railroad, "the press--the literati--the artists--all the rich people" came to view the magnificent seven-by- twelve foot canvas of the Yellowstone Canyon.6 Part of the reason for the turnout was that Yellowstone was the nation's newest wonder, having been declared a National Park--thanks in part to Moran's stunning visuals of the region, of course--on March 1 of that same year. Also, the intrigue surrounding Yellowstone had bombarded the East since 1869, when reports of the bizarre geology of the area had begun to appear in Scribner's, Harper's, and the Times. For three years, New Yorkers had marvelled at the incredible stories which arrived from the Montana territory and in 1870, when Langford embarked on his propagandizing lecture circuit to celebrate "The Wonders of Yellowstone," he created an even greater demand for the mysteries of the American West. Even more interesting was the pre-publicity stirred by officials at Northern Pacific who clearly wished to bring New York to the peak of excitement in order to instill Yellowstone--and its proximity to the Northern Pacific line--within the minds of the elite. Jay Cooke had promoted the showing proudly, circulating invitations to anyone and everyone he knew as well as sponsoring press releases about Moran's upcoming unveiling. Eastern curiosity was at a critical point, and finally, Moran's keen eye and strong sense of color would at last provide the visual expression of Yellowstone's wonders.

Moran himself had taken advantage of the "Yellowstone fever" before he even began sketching the final canvas. Realizing that the wealthy of New York represented a target market for art purchases, Moran, who was typically fond of producing modestly sized paintings, purposely chose to render the scene in exaggerated scale. The size, although representative of the grand historical canvases of Europe, was not selected because of a desire to convey the magnitude of awe inspired by Yellowstone, but because the current art market favored large canvases. The Eastern industrial millionaires craved broad canvases to adorn the walls of their palatial estates and vacation resorts, and they sometimes purchased them for their corporations to use in advertising or office decor. Moran was fully aware of trends in the art market, and he used the position afforded him by Jay Cooke's publicizing for some self-promotion of his own. He was successful from this moment forward, and it appears that a few executives did become Moran's most valuable customers. Today, the largest holdings of Moran paintings reside in the possession of the Santa Fe Railroad and IBM.

The Making of a National Icon: Yellowstone in the Capitol

New York's reception of "The Great Canyon of the Yellowstone" was tremendous, and reports of the evening in Clinton Hall painted Moran and his work in terms as colorful and magnificent as one of his canvases. Moran then sent the painting to the Smithsonian, where it was displayed for two weeks before moving to the Speaker's Office in the Old Hall of Representatives. Moran's intent was to entice Congressmen to view it at the Smithsonian, but he said that "it was useless to continue its exhibition at the Smithsonian, so far as getting Congressmen to see it was concerned," and so he managed to secure a place in the Capitol, where he noted that it had "created quite a sensation." (Kinsey 64) During its stay in Washington, the painting struck Congressmen and visitors to the Capitol with the awe of the scene Moran depicted, and Moran himself lobbied tirelessly with Congressional acquaintances to secure a purchase. On June 10, 1872, Moran's persistence was rewarded as Congress appropriated $10,000 for Moran's painting, an extraordinary sum at the time. After a multi-city tour, it was placed in the Senate lobby, the first landscape to join the Capitol Collection, and as contemporary art critic Clarence Cook commented, "the only good picture to be found in the Capitol." (Wilkins 5)

Although Jackson's photos were as popular as Moran's sketches and used in the lobbying of Congress, Jackson himself insisted that Moran's "wonderful coloring" was what convinced Congress to preseve Yellowstone for posterity. (Wilkins 52) Congress had some additional help in the voting process. Jay Cooke had already understood the potential for tourism in the Yellowstone area, but he did not have the means to market it effectively. Thanks to Langford's desire to please his brothers-in-law and Moran's subsequent interest in the area, he found the perfect opportunity to promote "Wonderland" for the wealthy Eastern market able to afford travel to the west. Cooke had not seen Yellowstone himself, but he had the good assurances of his corporate secretary Sam Wilkeson, who said "Jay Cooke, feel to the ends of your toes that we have the biggest and finest thing on this earth." (Kinsey 73) Cooke saw serious profit in Yellowstone, and thanks to the influence of his local Congressman, William Kelley of Philadelphia, and additional pleas from Langford, his interests in dedicating Yellowstone as a National Park were known on the floor of Congress. On March 1, 1872, Congress passed a resolution declaring Yellowstone's nearly 2.2 million acres National Park and appointed Langford the first Park Superintendent, a position he used to favor Northern Pacific's rail development in the 1880's.

Despite Moran's meticulous sketches and his discerning eye, he freely admits that the scene he depicts is not physically accurate. He writes of the painting:

"Every form introduced into the picture is within view from a given point, but the relations of the separate parts to one another are not always preserved. For instance, the precipitous rocks on the right were really at my back when I stood at that point, yet in their present position they are strictly true to pictorial nature; and so correct is the whole representation that every member of the expedition with which I was connected declared, when he saw the painting, that he knew the exact spot which had been reproduced. My aim was to bring before the public the character of that region. The rocks in the foreground are so carefully drawn that a geologist could determine their precise nature." (Wilkins 69)

Although Moran painted the rocks in precise detail, he considered himself an artist, not a documentor of geology and topography. Easterners came to his painting to see details and gather facts about the region that had intrigued them, but Moran desired to leave them with scenic impressions of Yellowstone and relied on Jackson's photos to provide the visual accuracy. Moran states:

I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization...Topography in art is valueless. The motive or incentive of my "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" was the gorgeous display of color that impressed itself upon me. Probably no scenery in the world presents such a combination. The forms are extremely wonderful and pictorial, and, while I desired to tell truly of Nature, I did not wish to realize the scene literally, but to preserve and to convey its true impression. 7

Moran also included two small figures in the foreground which have been the subject of some debate. Some believe that they represent Dr. Hayden and his executive officer, James Stevenson while others believe that they are not geological surveyors, but visual surveyors who represent Moran and Jackson. Moran has not indicated his intentions here, but he has presented a more troubling duo elsewhere in the painting, unfortnuately not visible when scanned for presentation here. A Native American, turning away from the view, and a slaughtered deer behind him are small elements which may infuse the painting with Moran's own understanding of the region. Moran knew that to the Native Americans, Yellowstone was not a new discovery, as the indifferent pose of the man in the painting suggests. When coupled with the slain deer, however, the inclusion of the Native American signifies the darker side of the Yellowstone expedition. The intrusion of the Easterners and the Railroad would exact a high price from the native inhabitants of the Yellowstone Valley. This commentary in the painting was lost in the excitement, however, and viewers instead focused on the majesty and color of the scene, overlooking or perhaps not even recognizing the tiny figures in the foreground.

A few other inconsistencies appear in the scene. The steam and clouds rising on the horizon represent the geyser basins which Moran had not seen until after his visit to the canyon, and the suggestion of the Teton peaks on the horizon is geographically impossible given the point-of-view. But as Moran intended, the painting brings the character of the region to the public eye, and in his own way, he clearly expresses his own sense of awe and wonder at the natural beauty of Yellowstone. His daughter, Ruth Moran Bedford, wrote of her father's experience in Yellowstone that "to him, it was all grandeur, beauty, color, and light-- nothing of man at all, but nature, virgin, unspoiled and lovely. In the Yellowstone country he found fairy- like color and form that his dreams could not rival." (Wilkins 66-67) Despite the machinations which lay beneath the canvas, Moran's painting captures the aritist's sincere love and respect for the magnificent land which inspired him and moved him deeply.

Conclusions: Marketing the Continent

The history of Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone reflects in many ways the complicated relationship between Americans and their natural environment during the late Nineteenth century. On one hand, the public pointed to the physical wilderness of America as the true wellspring of democracy, culture, and identity, but on the other hand, it provided a wealth of natural resources and profit centers which could be had for the right price. From 1872 until 1950, Moran's painting enchanted visitors to the Capitol, who gazed at this spectacle on the wall of the Senate Lobby which memorialized the complex processes and chains of relationships generated by the bounty of the geography of the American continent. Nature in its most sublime representation had entered the Capitol, but ironically, the nature which it most accurately signifies is human nature. While many Americans today credit the establishment of a National Park System to the impassioned speeches of men like Theodore Roosevelt or John Muir, the rise of the park system is much more complicated and considerably less ecologically motivated. The complex networks of industrial greed and political jockeying that worked to give Yellowstone status as a national treasure tell us a very different story from the one alluded to by the words on the Memorial Arch at Yellowstone's North Entrance. Yellowstone was ideally "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," but in reality, it was merely the first of many plots of Western land that beckoned industrialists with stores of natural resources and lured tourists with its unparalleled beauty and majesty. Yellowstone, like the Grand Canyon and the Yosemite Valley, was first established for the benefit and profit of all men involved in its discovery and assessment; that all Americans could and still can enjoy the splendor of these parks is merely a happy coincidence in the game of supply and demand.

View of Yellowstone Canyon, from the Falls, June 1995

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Joshua Johns
April 1, 1996