Nancy K. Anderson, Thomas Moran, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 334, illustration in color of Prang's chromolithograph
Joni Kinsey, Thomas Moran's West: Chromolithography, High Art, and Popular Taste, Lawrence, Kansas, 2006, p. 86-88, illustration in color of the chromolithograph p. 68, 87
In 1871, Thomas Moran set out to join Ferdinand V. Hayden on his expedition to explore and thoroughly document the Yellowstone area of the Wyoming territory. Hayden's excursion was the last in a series of three to the region, but the first to be sponsored by the U.S. government and to include an artist. Joni Louise Kinsey writes: "In the course of nineteenth-century American westward expansion, the act of surveying became an indispensable component of United States official policy. Initiated with Lewis and Clark's travels through the Louisiana Purchase in 1804-1806, exploratory expeditions became one of the primary means by which the government gathered information about its vast resources.... From 1867-1879 the United States supported four expeditions in the West that have come to be known as the Great Surveys because of their wide geographical range, their long duration, and their comprehensive research" (Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, 1992, p.1). These expeditions were all-inclusive, compiling data on natural resources, from minerals to plant life, using both topographers and cartographers to chart the lands, and graphic illustrations to convey a sense of the region's appearance. These surveys then submitted their findings to the government to add to the country's general knowledge of its own land and plan for its future use.
Upon their return from Yellowstone, Hayden wrote a complete account of his experiences and described the area of the hot springs as "beautiful beyond description." Hayden's writings, illustrated with Moran's sketches and William Henry Jackson's photographs, were presented to Congress as part of a successful bill to make the Yellowstone area the United States' first national park in March of 1872.
Jackson and Moran became close friends during the expedition, photographing and sketching many of the same images, as seen in Moran's Hot Springs of Gardiner's River and Jackson's At the Mammoth Hot Springs, Gardiner River, which also shows Moran at the Springs. However, photography was still viewed as a scientific endeavor rather than an artistic one, and in the nineteenth century was still largely limited to monochrome. A painting completed by an artist had the potential to be grander in size and more magnificent in color, and paintings were more closely allied with the historical notion of landscape as fine art. Indeed, Moran completed his massive 84 by 144 inch Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone to present to the Department of the Interior in 1872.
Moran's trip to Yellowstone was a springboard for the rest of his career, as he would continue to embark on similar artistic surveys bringing the newly explored West to the rest of the country. Moran closely associated himself with Yellowstone, and after his initial visit, he began signing his paintings with a monogrammed signature that interlocked his initials, TM, to create a Y for Yellowstone.
Moran's laconic journal does not include much description of the thermal springs depicted here, now known as the Mammoth Hot Springs. He does indicate he spent at least three days at the site from July 21-24 stating, "Sketched & photos in the morning. The main party passed us in the forenoon. Went on in the afternoon as far as the Hot Springs on Gardners River." A handwritten description on the reverse of the painting, possibly in Moran's hand is a bit more expressive: "The wonderfully beautiful character of the calcareous deposits scattered over the new National park is now here seen to so much advantage as at the 'White Mountain' on Gardiner's River. In many places it presents all the appearance of a petrified cascade suddenly arrested in its downward flow. In flowing from the 'upper Basins' this thermal water has formed a series of ledges, which seem hewn as it were from Parisian marble and 'rainbowed' with lustrous opal like tints, presents a 'coup d'oeil' beyond all description. You must have ascended these alabaster steps O reader! I examined the peculiarities of their structure to comprehend their wonderful magnificence."
At the end of 1873, Louis Prang, one of the most successful producers of chromolithographs, approached Moran asking him to create a series of watercolors he could reproduce in a special portfolio. After an initial wariness, Moran accepted and sent Prang several watercolors over the course of 1874 and early 1875. Prang published fifteen of the twenty-four watercolors Moran sent as chromolithographs in his 1876 publication The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah accompanied by text from Hayden, the leader of Moran's Yellowstone expedition. The present watercolor of Gardner's River Hot Springs was sent to Prang in early 1874 and reproduced as the first image within the portfolio.
Kinsey notes that "The 1876 Prang prints were the most important chromolithographs ever made from Moran's art ... Most importantly, as a 'just subject for national pride,' as Hayden described it in the preface, the portfolio was part of a larger effort to use Moran's art to popularize the American West in the second half of the nineteenth century. The Prang publication was a much larger effort to package and commodify the region, transforming it from an alien wilderness into an integral part of national identity through pictorial imagery. The portfolio participated in making the landscape's sublime expanses manageable and offered its collectors the literal ability to own its scenic wonders. ... By enframing the landscape, shaping it, and presenting it to viewers through the carefully constructed vehicle of either a gallery exhibition or a lavishly printed portfolio, Moran's art made the enormity and exoticism of the West approachable. That process, of composing views from the raw material of experience and transforming them into evocative symbols of American possibility, is evident in each individual scene of The Yellowstone National Park" (Thomas Moran's West, 2006, p. 82).
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