Moran believed that “the business of a great painter should be the representation of great scenes in nature” and he was riveted by the rugged and varied topography of the West (quoted in Mary Panzer, “Great Pictures of the 1817 Expedition: Thomas Moran, William Henry Jackson, and The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” Splendors of the American West: Thomas Moran’s Art of the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone, Birmingham, Alabama, 1990, p. 43). In addition to a number of brilliant onsite watercolor studies, this first trip resulted in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872, Smithsonian American Art Museum lent by the Department of the Interior Museum, Washington, D.C.), which Congress purchased for $10,000 in 1872, cementing Moran’s reputation as the great painter of the American West. Jackson wrote of the monumental mountainscape, “It captured, more than any other painting I know, the color and the atmosphere of spectacular nature” (Ibid., p. 43). This, along with Moran’s watercolor studies, were instrumental in Congress’ decision to establish Yellowstone as the first national park.
Moran’s new found fame resulted in a number of watercolor commissions including Louis Prang’s 1873 request for a series of Yellowstone watercolors to be reproduced as chromolithographs in a deluxe folio, The Yellowstone Park, and the Mountain Region of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, and Utah published in 1876, and English industrialist William Blackmore’s order for 16 works. In addition to these multi-work commissions, Moran received a number of smaller entreats most likely including the present work, which is inscribed “to Lieut. F.C. Grugan/with the regards of/T. Moran.” The drama and sense of discovery manifested in Moran’s western depictions held particular interest to adventure-minded military men.
Executed circa 1874, Yellowstone Lake is exemplary of the robust color and composition of Moran’s best western watercolors. Although the scale is intimate, he adeptly conveys the largess of the landscape utilizing brilliant blues, pinks and yellows and browns. Detail in the distant mountains is achieved through more subtle modulations of washes over pencil. While the influence of British artist J.M.W. Turner is evident, the execution is singularly Moran’s and his depictions of Yellowstone were a catalyst for altering the public’s perception of the place, “Moran’s art was responsible not only for introducing the appearance of Yellowstone to Americans, but also for contributing to the way that these places were understood. What had been perceived as distant, sinister, and hellish places before 1870 became, through his portrayals, places of magnificence and wonder that could stand as important symbols of America’s uniqueness” (Ibid., p. 34)
Moran returned to the West several times, exploring many parts of the vast region and taking its various aspects as subjects throughout his career. The importance of this body of work was both seminal and timely. “Thomas Moran’s experiences with Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon were part of a much larger process at the end of the nineteenth century to explore and map the American West, make it accessible for development, and perhaps most importantly, bring what previously had been considered alien territory into the psychological consciousness of the people of the United States” (Ibid., p. 29).
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