Now on view in Landscape in the New World is one of the museum’s American art treasures—Thomas Moran’s sweeping panorama The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Wyoming. It’s pretty hard to pass by this painting (pictured above) without lingering—it’s a portrait of the wild, alluring America of our collective patriotic consciousness; the polar opposite of suburban lives and draining highway commutes. It’s the America that car companies attempt to keep alive—at least on our TV screens, because gas-guzzling SUVs and cruise-controlled sedans are about the lost frontier, right? (Environment-killing emissions aside, of course.)
Last year Theresa Papanikolas, our curator of European and American art and curator of Landscape in the New World, stopped at the spot on the north rim of the Grand Canyon looking out on the view that Moran painted—now called Moran Point—and took the photo pictured at the top of this page. It’s a view of hard edges and crisp sky. It’s clear that Moran was doing some selling of his own—his lyrical vision of the famed canyon (he documented more than 40 sites over 40 days in the area) helped convince the U.S. Congress in 1872 that Yellowstone was worth designating as a national park—the first one on the planet. (The power of art!)
“He romanticizes it,” explains Papanikolas. “It’s in the 19th-century landscape tradition, the concept of the sublime. They did everything they could to enhance the atmosphere. You can see how he generalizes slopes and concentrates on the peaks.”
Moran signed on as the artist for an 1871 U.S. Geological Survey expedition and sketched like crazy, capturing scenic views such as the Gardner River, Mammoth Hot Springs, the Upper and Lower Geyser Basins, and, of course, the Grand Canyon. Ten months after he left Yellowstone (and three months after the wilderness was made a national park), Moran painted his first Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone—a work even larger than the one here in Honolulu. It belongs to the Department of the Interior and is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
It wasn’t until 33 years after his initial visit to Yellowstone that Moran created the painting now on view here. “Moran would sketch on site, then do studies and final paintings in his studio,” says Papanikolas. It’s clear that his Yellowstone experience had an influence on his art for the rest of his life.
Thomas Moran (American, 1837–1926)
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,
Oil on canvas
Gift of The Bank of Hawaii, 1970 (3701.1)