THOMAS MORAN 1837-1926
An Arizona Sunset Near the Grand Canyon, 1898
Oil on canvas, 20 X 30" (50.80 x 76.20 cm.)
Signed, lower right
Museum purchase, 958-0-128
Thomas Moran apprenticed to a Philadelphia wood engraving firm, but by 1858 at the age of twenty-one, he had exhibited an oil painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Encouraged by the marine painter, James Hamilton, Moran traveled to London in 1861, where he was deeply impressed by the dynamic effects and glowing color of J. M. W. Turner. He also visited France and Italy in 1866 to study the Old Masters, but his early American reputation was gained as an illustrator. In 1871 Moran went west with the Hayden Expedition to record the wonders of the Yellowstone area, making annotated drawings and watercolors later used to illustrate articles in the popular press as well as the official report. Moran's watercolors and his very large oil painting, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 84 X 144 inches (1872, National Museum of American Art, lent by the U.S. Department of the Interior), convinced the U. S. Congress to set this area aside as America's first national park.
Moran first visited the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in 1873, and the resulting Chasm of the Colorado (1874, National Museum of American Art, lent by the U. S. Department of the Interior) further enhanced his reputation as the preeminent painter of the Southwest. In 1879, Moran traveled to the Tetons, the Sierra Nevada, and to Lake Tahoe. Although during the 1880s he based some pictures on his journeys abroad and to Mexico, his reputation rests mainly on the paintings of the American West.
Thomas Moran painted An Arizona Sunset Near the Grand Canyon, based very possibly on sketches done during his second visit to the Grand Canyon of the Colorado in 1892. The Santa Fe Railroad, which had begun using scenic art to promote its routes in the Southwest and was luring artists there to record the spectacular landscape, had provided Moran transportation in return for the copyright to a canvas to be reproduced for railroad publicity.1 Moran arrived for the first time at the south rim of the canyon after a day's stagecoach ride from Flagstaff, Arizona, then the end of the railroad line. The title of the Butler Institute picture does not give a specific location, but it is known that the artist sketched for a number of days not only the canyon of the Colorado but neighboring canyon country as well.
After leaving the Grand Canyon, Moran went with his good friend, the frontier photographer William H. Jackson, into the mountains of Wyoming, ending with another visit to the Yellowstone area. He then returned home to East Hampton, Long Island with scores of pencil, watercolor, and oil sketches. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado (1892, Philadelphia Museum of Art) was finished by the end of August and lithographed by the Santa Fe Railroad as a promotional piece. From this and numerous other Moran paintings, late nineteenth-century America gained its images of the Southwest.
The flaring red- orange sky of An Arizona Sunset Near the Grand Canyon, made even more dramatic by the contrasting gray clouds, reflects Moran's debt to the coloristic freedom of J. M. W. Turner. The sharp drop from the edge of the foreground to the river flowing between rocky outcroppings is similar to the increased drama created in the 1892 painting of the Grand Canyon, which, instead of a foreground filling the lower edge of the picture, is only anchored at the right and left corners, the center falling away with awesome suddenness into a deep gorge. Moran's earlier pictures also tended to give landscape sharp, clearly defined features suggesting truth to topographical reality when, in fact, elements seen from different viewpoints were often combined in order to recreate the effect of the actual site. In his later paintings, landscape features tend to be less insistent in outline, more gentle in contour and enveloped in a more poetic atmosphere. Here the glowing sunset sky impressively silhouettes trees seen as a dark green mass and picks out the edges of the rock formations, separating them from deep shadow. It is more a picture of general atmospheric mood than the sum of topographical details, reflecting the late nineteenth-century taste for poetic image rather than sunlit description.
Moran continued to paint the landscape moods of the Southwest, returning almost every year between 1901, when the Santa Fe completed the rail line to the Grand, Canyon, and his death in 1926. Since his first visit in 1873, he had traveled to the Rockies, Europe and Mexico, yet he was drawn back again and again to the Southwest. Alongside him now came travelers attracted to the region for the first time by the landscape images he had created.
WILLIAM S. TALBOT