Thomas Moran

Thomas Moran was one of the greatest English landscape watercolorist and has been directly attributed with helping to establish the national park system through his paintings. Born in Bolton, England on February 12, 1837, Moran was only seven when his family moved to Kensington, Pennsylvania. Soon after grammar school, Moran embarked on an apprenticeship with an engraving firm but with aspirations of becoming an artist, he decided to join his brother, Edward Moran, a fellow painter, in his studio as his intern. He was informally taught by Edward and other Philadelphia artist with no official training. In the 1860s, he exhibited his first professional landscape, working as a fantasy artist due to his love for literature. Moran and his brothers traveled to the surrounding forests to instill the majesty of nature through sketching and photography, capturing the colors and hues to bring back to the studio to complete. Through his commissions gained, Moran began his life of extensive travel with a trip to England to embark on a mission to visit the painting locations of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851), an artist who greatly influenced Moran. He continued traveling and copying Turner’s works before returning home to the U.S. He created fantasy landscapes which provided him the financial backing he needed to take a trip into the West.

His life changed in 1871 when Thomas Moran gained a commission to rework some illustrations of Yellowstone with Scribner's Magazine. Anxious to begin, he quickly joined a government survey expedition to Yellowstone and took the train out west, sketching and creating quick watercolors as he went to his destination in Montana. Before embarking on this journey, Moran married Mary Nimmo Moran, another landscape artist, who he wrote letters to throughout his travels. For the next two months, he created dozens of sketches which would serve as a basis for many versions of watercolors back in his studio on the East Coast. These images of geysers, hot springs, mud pots and waterfalls were some of the first color images of Yellowstone ever seen in the East. The renditions were critical in establishing Yellowstone as the first national park in March of 1872 as it was the first time anyone in Congress had seen the majesty of the land. By 1876, Moran rivaled Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) as a major landscape painter, creating numerous sketches with many variations for each sketch. Though he possessed a tendency to lend a bit of poetic license to his work as he added objects in the foreground or removed homesteads to create a desolate scene, his landscapes remained relatively true to the main subject. He claimed, "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."

As his fame grew with these grand western watercolors, Moran refused to limit his creativity to one genre but instead created nautical, industrial, historical and urban scenes. In 1884, he moved to East Hampton, Long Island and generated fantastical landscapes of Long Island’s swamp areas and industrial skylines as well as the haunting shipwrecks off of the shore. He returned to Bolton, England where he sold all of the watercolors in his exhibition as his hometown embraced their returning celebrity. He continued traveling extensively throughout his later years, visiting the Grand Canyon, Cuba, Mexico and more painting well into his eighties. Prior to his death in 1926, he created watercolors in extreme detail and color despite his advanced age, combining reality and embellishing the truth as he pleased. He gained the title as the “father” of the national park system as his paintings helped to create the park conservations that we visit today.