Thomas Moran, Landscape Artist of the American West

Did you know Yellowstone was America’s first National Park? The watercolors of Thomas Moran helped convince Congress that the area surrounding the Yellowstone River was unique and needed protection. And in 1872 Congress passed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, which President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law.

 Let’s Learn about Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone takes up 2.2 million acres in Wyoming, Montana, and eastern Utah. Millions visit to see grizzly bears, herds of bison and elk, wolves, and smaller creatures like beaver and river otters. The park has hot springs, mudpots, and over 500 geysers.

Minerva Terrace, Yellowstone, Thomas Moran, 1872, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., public domain

Reports of such phenomena reached the early explorers, Lewis and Clark, but they couldn’t investigate. Later, mountain men who trapped beaver in the Rockies, told of the wonders. But for many years people back east thought these were just tall tales.

Then in 1871 Thomas Moran borrowed money to travel west to join an expedition headed by F.V. Hayden to investigate the rumors. Moran’s watercolors and the photographs of William Henry Jackson provided pictorial documentation for the wonders of Yellowstone. These watercolors and photos were passed around Congress and helped lead to Yellowstone’s becoming America’s first national park.

Let’s Learn about the Artist

Moran photo by Napoleon Sarony, 1890-96, Library of congress, Washington, D.C.

Thomas Moran was born in 1837 near Manchester, England. His family were handloom weavers until the invention of power looms changed that industry. In 1844, to gain better opportunities for his children, Thomas’ father moved the family to America, settling near Philadelphia.

While still a teenager, Thomas apprenticed to an engraving firm. After 3 years he left to work in the art studio of his older brother, Edward, an up-and-coming marine artist. The brothers were drawn to the work of British artist J.M.W. Turner, and in 1861 traveled to England to study his paintings in the National Gallery. Moran’s art shows the influence of Turner’s coloring and style.

Sketches and watercolors made on the Yellowstone expedition brought Thomas many new commissions. His career really took off after he sold his huge (7X12 feet) oil painting, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, to Congress not long after they created the park. In 1873, Moran joined another expedition down the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon. A year later, Chasm of the Colorado, (also 7X12 feet) was also bought by Congress.

Grand Canyon of the Colorado River by Thomas Moran, Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain

Moran continued to travel all his life. He visited Europe several more times. He further explored the Grand Canyon and other areas of the West. He especially loved the Green River area of Wyoming, and a painting from there is in the White House’s collection. He produced large numbers of etchings, watercolors, and oils right into his 80s. He died in California in 1926, but his influence on American landscape art lives on.

Let’s Learn about the Painting

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone that Congress bought is now in the Smithsonian, and I couldn’t find a good copy, but Moran made other paintings of the canyon, and this one gives you a good idea of his style. Moran was a 2nd generation Hudson School artist, early landscape artist who desired to accurately show the beauty of nature and inspire viewers to see the hand of God in its grandeur.

Heart of the Andes by Frederick Edwin Church, Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC, public domain

Like earlier Hudson River artists, Moran depicted nature with great detail and accuracy.

But Moran differed from them in seldom showing the presence of man, or if he did show them, they are dwarfed by the landscape. You can also see the influence of Turner on Moran’s landscapes.

Norham Castle, Sunrise, by J.M.W. Turner, 1845, Tate, Britain, public domain

Turner used watercolor techniques with oil paints, using thin washes to create light and changing atmospheric conditions. In this painting Moran uses Turner’s techniques to make it look like the water fall is pulling clouds right down out of the sky.

Unlike Turner, Moran painted details clearly and with scientific accuracy.

Let’s Enjoy the Painting Together

Before telling children too much about the painting, ask them to tell what they think is going on in it and what tells them that.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, Smithsonian American Art Museum, public domain

1.Then you might like to ask them these questions for further exploration:

  • How do you think the explorers who first saw this place felt?
  • Would you like to visit this place?
  • What sounds would you hear if you visited here?
  • What colors do you see in the painting?
  • What are the lightest parts of the painting? The darkest?
  • Do you think Moran had to do some climbing to paint this scene? (he did)

2.In landscapes, it’s fun to find the horizon and the three distances—foreground, middle ground, and background. How does the artist show these 3 sections?

3.Ask children to follow the river as it falls from the cliff and winks in and out between rocks as it flows into the foreground.

A Little Inspiration from God’s Word

Moran continued to travel the West painting its sights. When he saw a photo by his friend William Henry Jackson of this mountain in the Sawatch Range of what is now Colorado, he knew he had to paint it.

photo of the Mountain of the Holy Cross, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, public domain

The 14,011-foot Mountain of the Holy Cross is part of the Holy Cross Wilderness area near Vail, Colorado. Moran made a difficult climb to a neighboring mountain to paint the mountain. The mountain’s northeast face has deep crevices in the shape of a cross. When the mountain snows begin to melt, snow lasts longer in these crevices, making the cross very prominent.

Mountain of the Holy Cross by Thomas Moran, 1875, public domain

How amazing that this cross towers over scenes Moran painted that also show the wonder and majesty of our God.

Picture of Molly the Artsy Corgi

Ready for Spring

Before You Go

If you’d like more activity ideas for art, history, and nature, curriculum connections, and links to more resources, be sure to sign up for my newsletter and receive a free guide, 5 Ways Art Benefits Children’s Cognitive, Physical, Spiritual, and Social Development, You’ll also get a Few Fun and Easy Activities for each Benefit.

Visit Molly’s and my website where you’ll find free downloadable puzzles, how-to-draw pages and coloring pages for kids and an updated list of my hands-on workshops, chapels, and presentations for all ages.




14 thoughts on “Thomas Moran, Landscape Artist of the American West

  1. JD Wininger

    Thank you for sharing more info about Mr. Moran that I ever knew Ms. Kathy. You can get lost in his landscape paintings, can’t you? I would forever find new details each time I would revisit them. God’s blessings ma’am.


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      Getting lost in Moran’s landscapes is a good way of putting it, J.D. And the details are so much fun to discover. I pray all is going well on the Cross Dubya!


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      You’re welcome, Becky. Even though I know Moran’s work, I wasn’t familiar with the Mountain of the Holy Cross. I guess it’s quite a trek to get to it, let alone climb it!


  2. CandyceCarden

    I enjoyed learning about this painting. I had the privilege to spend 13 days in Yellowstone during a work study programs. One of the most memorable places I’ve ever visited. Thanks for this!


  3. Katherine Pasour

    I’m amazed by the beauty and power of Moran’s paintings. I love landscape art and these are so beautiful. It is so interesting to learn more about Moran and his background. We are blessed to have national parks and the foresight of those who worked hard to preserve these areas. Thank you, Kathy, for sharing this inspiring message.


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      You’re welcome, Katherine! Would you believe, Moran isn’t in many of my art books? I’m so glad his work wasn’t overlooked by Congress in making Yellowstone a National Park! It’s so good to hear from you, my friend. Take care and enjoy those horses and your beautiful garden!


  4. Jeanne Takenaka

    Kathy, I never knew all of this about Yellowstone and about Thomas Moran. I loved reading about how influential his art was in bringing about the creation of Yellowstone as our first national park. His style is beautiful!


    1. Kathy O'Neill Post author

      I love his style,, too. I’m sure with your love of photographing the beauty of nature, his work really appealed to you. Take care and I hope you keep posting the beautiful photos on your blog.



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