Yellowstone’s Wild Majesty – Thomas Moran’s paintings influenced Congress to establish First National Park

The land of fire. You will find it a land of fire, melting rock, boiling water, sulfuric smell, and otherworldly beauty. It may be part of America’s backyard. Yellowstone National Park is the name of this amazing location.

This year, Yellowstone is celebrating its 150th anniversary as the first national park in the United States. It’s still a majestic place, despite being one of the most visited parks worldwide. The park had been covered with deep snow throughout the year. However, the flooding caused massive damage to the area, causing trees to fall, bridges to collapse, and a halt in tourist numbers.

After a thorough rebuilding, most of the parks are now up and running. Many people cancelled their plans to travel to Yellowstone because of the uncertainty and upheaval. This is a great time to visit a unique place unlike any other.

“The Great Blue Spring of the Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park,” 1875, by Thomas Moran.
Chromolithograph; 8. 25 inches by 12. 31 inches. Fort Worth, Texas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art. (Public domain)

The Whispered Rumors that Started It All

Yellowstone today is just as captivating as it was in the past. Strange tales about an erupting land were told by Native American traders and grizzly trappers in the beginning years of this nation.

A few years after parting from the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1806, mountain man John Colter came upon a region of fumaroles and hot springs not too far from what later became the national park. Colter’s hell is a name given to the Wyoming area that Colter told.

Although there was some interest in exploring this wild area of the West further, others felt it was almost suicide-like. There were dangers in this area, including untamed forests and beasts and heavy snowfall. Native American skirmishes and the Civil War that ended the Civil War, which prevented Americans from exploring the amazing lands around Yellowstone today.

It wasn’t until August 1871 that Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, led the first official scientific expedition to survey and explore the land that would later become America’s first national park.

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The Hayden Expedition assembled an additional team, which included a meteorologist and an ornithologist as well as support staff. They also had a topographer and an agricultural statistician, an entomologist and an entomologist. There were two botanists and a photographer. Thomas Moran was an artist.

Moran’s contributions to exploration are undoubtedly the greatest. The extraordinary value of this landscape was made evident to Congress and Americans by Moran’s photographs. It was a treasure that Americans realized must be protected.

“Hot Springs of the Yellowstone,” 1872, by Thomas Moran. Oil on canvas; 28 inches by 42 inches. LACMA. (Public domain)

Drawing Stories From the Wild

America was still reeling after the Civil War. Photographic technology was still relatively young. To keep up with developments around the globe, newspapers and printed photos were used by the public. Moran’s writing was printed and encouraged readers to appreciate America’s extraordinary nature.

You might be able to picture yourself waiting, not believing the tales about mud volcanoes like Dragon’s Mouth. You can see them spewing, swallowing, and gurgling a steady stream of boiling earth through their cavernously roaring throats. Modern adventurers should be grateful for modern boardwalks that allow them to traverse such treacherous terrains.

Castle Geyser is a giant child’s drip-castle on the beach. It stands out among a sea of bubbling geysers. The sheer fury of its eruption is amazing. Its fury is mesmerizing. What thought must the early viewers of Moran’s sketch, “The Castle Geyser”, have as they stared at Moran’s pictorial water column amid colors rarely seen in nature? The sheer amount of thermal activity seen in the beautiful and eerie Yellowstone area makes even the Icelandic geysers pale by comparison.

Thanks to Moran’s hard work and talent, we now have a more humanized perspective of lands that were previously unknown.

“The Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin, Yellowstone National Park,” 1874, by Thomas Moran. Chromolithograph; 8. 25 inches by 12.5 inches. Fort Worth, Texas, Amon Carter Museum of American Art. (Public domain)

The Life and Works of Thomas Moran

Each life is full of opportunities. It was especially true for early American explorers.

Moran was born in Bolton, England, in 1837, but he died an American immigrant in Santa Barbara, California. Thomas Moran was seven years old when his family immigrated to Philadelphia. First, he worked as an apprentice for a wood engraving machine, then as an artist. He was heavily influenced by Edward and J.M.W., British painter. Turner.

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The young Moran was greatly influenced by British painter J.M.W. Turner. “Wreckers Coast of Northumberland,” circa 1834, by J.M.W. Turner. Oil on canvas; 35. 66 inches by 47. 56 inches. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. (Public domain)

Moran was hard at work creating images for magazines, and securing some success as an artist. Not necessarily the most naturally talented of 19th- and 20th-century artists, Moran nonetheless made a name for himself through effort and courage. He was forced to take on enormous risks when he tried his hand at uncharted terrains. This is a story about American perseverance and opportunity.

Moran spent most of his life in New York City, which was a major center of American art at that time. However, he often traveled West as a guest on the railroads. Moran painted Yosemite and the Grand Canyon as well as the Colorado River and later Zion National Park. His paintings of the West’s most beautiful scenes gained him notoriety.

Many of his paintings reveal a fascinating history. The piece “The Great Hot Springs” shows a number of small figures positioned before a series of beautiful pools. Hayden, William Jackson the photographer, Moran, and a Native American guide are probably among these figures.

“Tower at Tower Falls, Yellowstone,” 1872, by Thomas Moran. Watercolor and gouache over graphite on blue paper; 14. 25 inches by 10. 36 inches. Florian Carr Fund. National Gallery of Art. (Public domain)

Moran noted the Native Americans who were part of the Hayden Expedition, not just in his artworks but in his journal entries. He mentions once that a tribe member was among the group who killed three deer that were shot for food. The figure from “The Great Hot Springs” may have also been the mysterious person in headdress depicted in “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” a monumental painting which he sold to Congress for $10,000–an unheard of sum at the time. Moran was a high-profile painter and that fee secured his position. He also sold “Chasm of the Colorado ” for $–a staggering sum at the time.

What Moran wanted to sell was an incredible view of American spirit, adventure and achievement. Moran’s interpretations of the American West are still a hallmark of his career, as well as all that his works have to offer.

Moran depicted natural wonders beyond Yellowstone. This is an illustration of Grand Canyon. “Chasm of the Colorado,” 1837-1926, by Thomas Moran. Oil on canvas; 84. 36 inches by 144. 75 inches. U.S. Department of the Interior museum. (Public domain)

Painting the American Spirit

Having just returned from an impressive, but brief, excursion in Yellowstone National Park I am able to only picture the strength and determination required to navigate the treacherous terrain.

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My husband and I were charmedly protected by the Old Faithful Inn by night. However, we encountered six grizzly Bears by day, including one mother with her two cubs. Inadvertently, we slid down the scree hills to find ourselves startled at boiling sludge. We were closer to bison then we thought. As geysers burst and crystal pools of bacteria bubbled, we watched with amazement.

I sketched on paper and in my mind and marvelled at the feats of backpacking through uncharted wilderness, while carrying an easel and cleaning ones brushes with turpentine. Then, it was time to clean your hands. Moran’s paintings seem to be built on determination and admiration.

Moran produced more than 1,500 oil paintings and 800 watercolors in his lifetime. Many of his field sketches were later completed in the studio. One time, he was unable to accompany an expedition into the Grand Tetons uncharted Grand Tetons. His fellow explorers were so fond of him, they named Mount Moran in his honor.

I was also able to visit the Tetons in this summer. The Tetons offer a stunning backdrop to an exploration into the beauty and uniqueness of great nations, like Yellowstone.

If you are unable to travel West this year you still have the option of being transported. The beauty of great paintings can open your eyes and mind to new perspectives. America is truly blessed. Art and wonder may still be inspired by the American spirit and unbound West.

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