When you think of Yellowstone Park or the Grand Canyon, you are reminded of Thomas Moran who made it his life’s work to paint the magnificent Western landscapes in all their glory. One of the masters of the Hudson River School, he was often referred to as the ‘American Turner’.
Thomas Moran was born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, on January 12, 1837. His father, a weaver by trade, immigrated to America and moved his family to Kensington, Philadelphia. After a brief apprenticeship with a local engraving firm, young Thomas and his brother Edward, also an aspiring artist, rented a studio to practice their art.
During the 1860’s, the two Moran brothers would often travel to sketch the forest sceneries surrounding Philadelphia. Thomas formed a strong friendship with Mary Nimmo (Mollie) during this time, and she began accompanying the artist on his nature trips. They courted for two years and married in 1862. They lived the rest of their lives together.
In 1866, Thomas Moran returned to Europe to study paintings by the European masters. He exhibited his major early work, ‘Children of the Mountain’, in the Exposition Universelle in Paris a year later.
In the late 19th century, the artist achieved national recognition for sketches he created while accompanying a geological and geographic survey headed by Ferdinand V. Hayden. This was a U.S. government survey meant to explore parts of the Western territory in an effort to promote settlement. His paintings of the hot springs, mud pots and waterfalls in Yellowstone helped solidify its preservation, making it the first National Park of the United States.
Moran’s illustrations began to appear in Harper's Weekly, The Aldine, and other publications. Shortly after Yellowstone got its name, Congress purchased the artist’s glorious landscape ‘Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone’, to hang in the capitol. They later purchased ‘Chasm of the Colorado’ which catapulted Moran to national prominence. In 1875, he completed the last of his three great oil paintings entitled, ‘Mountain of the Holy Cross’, a view of a famous Colorado peak with a cross of snow on its side.
A move to East Hampton, Long Island in the 1880’s initiated Thomas Moran’s fascination with marine life, and he began to portray shipwrecks and other disasters that commonly occurred on the eastern shore. During the same decade, he painted pastoral views of Long Island that soon rivaled his western landscapes in popularity. A return to Bolton, England in 1882 entailed an exhibition that included 22 oil paintings, 100 watercolors, and a series of 25 illustrations from Longfellow's Hiawatha.
Throughout his career, Thomas Moran produced more than 1,500 oil paintings, 800 watercolors and scores of other drawings and prints. During his later years, he and Mollie spent more and more time in California. And so, in the fall of 1922, the couple left East Hampton and moved to Santa Barbara, California where the artist lived out the rest of his days. He continued to paint right up until his death, often going back to portray the Grand Canyon. He died at 90, on August 25, 1926, a well traveled man and legendary artist.