Thomas Moran and the Big Pictures


Visitors to the Main Interior Building will now be able to experience a special treat. Inspired by expeditions to the American West and then making their own remarkable journey, two amazing landscape paintings by artist Thomas Moran – touchstones of Interior’s history – will now be displayed in the Department’s headquarters. Not only do these paintings have their own fascinating story, they also played an important role in the history of our nation’s public lands.

What do landscape paintings have to do with our national parks, wildlife refuges, and other recreation areas? To answer that question, we have to go back to Thomas Moran, born in 1837 in England to two weaver parents. At 16, after migrating to America with his family and settling in Philadelphia, Moran got an apprenticeship as a wood engraver. His big break came when he was asked to convert amateur sketches of the Yellowstone area of Wyoming – a place Moran had never even seen - into publishable art for the popular literary magazine Scribner’s. Soon Moran earned a place on the first federally funded expedition to Yellowstone, in 1871. Moran's initial watercolors and subsequent “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” convinced the public of the importance of this place.

An oil painting of a tall waterfall flowing into a wide canyon with bare rock walls.

The expedition, led by geologist Ferdinand Hayden, was physically grueling. Yellowstone was 500 miles away from the nearest train station, so days were spent on dusty, dangerous dirt roads in bumpy wagons. When the group reached the Yellowstone region, there were no roads; everything had to be carried on the backs of animals or humans. Still, Moran took numerous sketches, supplementing the black and white expedition photographs. Later, using his sketches and memories as guides, he created these amazing paintings in his studio. With their color and expressive beauty, Moran’s works made a powerful argument for the aesthetic and transformational experience of being in and conserving great places.

Moran’s watercolors were some of the most persuasive evidence Congress considered when they decided Yellowstone would be our first national park. An artistic rendering, full of colors and glory, allowed Members of Congress to imagine the beauty and impact of the land they were saving for the public. And Moran forever carried Yellowstone with him, changing his signature to “TYM,” Thomas “Yellowstone” Moran.

Just as the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act passed in 1872, Moran finished the monumental 7 by 12 foot “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” which was purchased by Congress for $10,000 and displayed in the National Statuary Hall of the U.S. Capitol. Moran created the ideal image of Yellowstone at the Lower Falls. His aim was to not necessarily capture a topographically accurate scene but rather the sublime experience nature provides. Moran's eye-catching use of light and dark, his sense for the drama nature can provide and his absolutely enormous scene came together in a painting that captivated the nation’s consciousness. “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” was a visual of what was at stake in conservation, a painter’s brush valuing nature that led to public recognition of the importance of the outdoors.

An oil painting of a landscape of massive cliffs and canyons.

Thomas Moran's artistic connection to America's natural wonders extends well beyond Yellowstone. Another of his paintings, "The Chasm of the Colorado," was completed in 1873 after Moran took part in a exploratory survey of the Grand Canyon headed by self-trained geologist John Wesley Powell who went on to become the second Director of the U.S. Geological Survey. The painting portrays the epic beauty of the Grand Canyon with swirling clouds and textured peaks.

After over 75 years of being proudly displayed in the U.S. Capitol, both of Moran’s epic paintings were transferred to Interior in 1950 and then exhibited on loan at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and its Renwick Gallery, as well as traveling to countless museums across the country. Now, we are so glad to have Moran’s masterpieces “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone” and “The Chasm of the Colorado” anchor the new exhibition Thomas Moran & the ‘Big Picture’ at the Interior Museum. Moran’s paintings helped inspire so much of what still drives Interior. Every connection between people and these incredible places is part of his legacy.

Historic black and white photo of a white man with a long beard wearing a top hat.