THOMAS AND PETER MORAN; October 2012
By David Clemmer
Thomas Moran (1837-1926) and his brother Peter (1841-1914) were the most prominent members of an extraordinary clan of prodigiously talented siblings, spouses, and their offspring. The Morans were native to Bolton, England, but the family emigrated to the United States in 1844 when Thomas was seven and Peter three. They settled in Philadelphia and it was there that the four artist Moran brothers (Edward, Thomas, Peter and John) began their careers.
At the age of 16 Thomas apprenticed with a wood engraving firm but quickly advanced from reproducing the artwork of others to creating original work. He began etching in 1856, beginning a lifelong involvement with the graphic arts that reached its apogee in his collaboration with Louis Prang and Co. Thomas Moran made the first of eight trips to the American West in 1871 as a member of the Hayden geological survey. The Hayden group visited the Yellowstone region and the experience set Moran on his path to becoming one of the most important and celebrated early artists of the American West. On subsequent trips Thomas returned to Yellowstone and visited New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Utah and the Yosemite region. A selection of his images of the natural wonders of Yellowstone were published by Prang as a portfolio of 15 chromolithographs in 1876. Moran praised Prang’s work in a letter, stating that “chromo-lithography has, in your hands, attained perfection.”
The Prang prints are widely recognized as the finest examples of the chromolithographic medium and can be difficult to distinguish from Moran’s original watercolors. Moran’s Yellowstone paintings were instrumental in creating the impetus for Congress to designate Yellowstone as the nation’s first national park. Two of his most famous paintings, the monumental oils "The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" and "The Chasm of the Colorado" were purchased by Congress for the then extraordinary sum of $10,000 apiece. The paintings continue to hang in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., to this day. The Act of Dedication creating Yellowstone National Park was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872. After living in East Hampton, New York, for many years, in 1916 Thomas Moran began spending winters in Santa Barbara, California. He moved permanently to Santa Barbara in 1922 and died there in 1926 at the age of 89.
CONTINUED: Like his older brothers Thomas and Edward, Peter Moran began his career with an apprenticeship in a graphic arts firm. In 1859 he began to study painting with his brothers, beginning the transition from tradesman to fine artist. While his brothers specialized in landscapes (Thomas), marine subjects (Edward) and photography (John), Peter established himself as an animalier—a painter and etcher of animals. He made his first trip west in the company of Thomas in 1879, traveling from California through the Nevada, Utah and Idaho Territories and into Wyoming. Peter first traveled to the Southwest in the summer of 1880, visiting Santa Fe and Taos as well as the Zia, Jemez, San Juan and Santo Domingo pueblos in the company of fellow artist Henry Rankin Poore. He returned with Poore the following year, visiting Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Taos, Zuni and the Hopi villages of Arizona as part of an ethnological expedition led by Lieutenant John Gregory Burke. The material Peter gathered on these two trips became the basis for a extensive body of etchings, lithographs, watercolors and oil paintings that continued to occupy him until the end of his life. Peter’s articulate plein air pencil sketches and watercolors provide an unparalleled record of life and material culture in north central New Mexico. Having arrived 18 years before Bert Phillips—the first of the future Taos Society artists to settle here—Peter Moran deserves recognition as the first artist to create a cohesive body of work in New Mexico. Some evidence seemed to suggest that Peter returned to New Mexico in the summers of 1882 and ‘83, but new research indicates that it is more likely that he was home in Pennsylvania. Nonetheless, Peter’s experiences in New Mexico was to have a lasting effect. Central to his southwestern oeuvre is a group of approximately 16 etchings of New Mexico subjects.
Taken together, the work of Thomas and Peter Moran offers perhaps the finest and most comprehensive depiction of the American West and Southwest to be produced during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While Thomas’s status as the premiere painter of the grandeur of the West remains unchallenged, Peter’s importance as the first true New Mexico artist is just now being fully appreciated.
That appreciation has made a huge step forward with the publication of the recently published two volume set Domestic and Wild: Peter Moran’s Images of America by Baltimore-based art historian and architect David Gilmore Wright. Wright serves as a director of the American Historical Print Collectors Society and is a regular contributor to the society’s journal, Imprint. He is also the author of R. Swain Gifford: A Catalogue of Etchings 1865-1891. -- David Clemmer