He may not have been the first artist to see the Grand Canyon, but Thomas Moran was the first known to interpret it to canvas.
Accompanying Maj. John Wesley Powell during his 1873 survey of the canyons and plateaus of southwestern Utah Territory and northern Arizona Territory, Moran saw the Grand Canyon for the first time from Toroweap on the North Rim.
In a letter to his wife, he described what he saw: "The whole gorge for miles lay beneath us and it was by far the most awfully grand and impressive scene I have ever yet seen."
As it turned out, the Grand Canyon would change his life.
Moran was already a famous artist, known for his paintings and drawings of the American West. In 1871 his work was published in the influential magazine Scribner's Monthly images he had created of Yellowstone based on sketches by two members of an expedition to that future national park.
This gave Moran enough credibility to talk his way onto the expedition of Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden to Yellowstone in the summer of 1871. Moran created watercolors and sketches on the trip, and he used those preliminary pieces and images taken by expedition photographer, William Henry Jackson, to paint "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone."
In 1872 the federal government purchased the monumental, 7 foot by 12 foot oil painting for $10,000, a huge sum in the 1870s ‹ and not too shabby in 2005.
The painting was hung in the U.S. Capitol. Earlier that same year, Congress had created Yellowstone National Park, and many credited Moran's illustrations in Scribner's for moving the government to action on the bill.
During their 1873 expedition, Maj. Powell's theories on the formation of the Grand Canyon would prove to heavily influence Moran's work. Moran's illustrations are sprinkled throughout Powell's "Exploration of the Colorado River of the West and Its Tributaries" (1875), the famous depiction of Powell's expeditions through the Canyon in 1869 and 1871-72. In his book, Powell expressed the theory that erosion, over countless years, had created the Grand Canyon. It would take some time for those ideas to move into the mainstream of scientific thought, but Moran's experiences with Powell and the knowledge gained from the great explorer found expression in the painter's work.
In the form of a rainstorm, Moran depicted Powell's erosion theory in "The Chasm of the Colorado" (1874), his equally large companion painting to the Yellowstone piece. Congress also purchased this painting and hung it in the Capitol opposite "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone."
"The Chasm of the Colorado" was of biblical proportions: A torrential downpour thunders across the Inner Canyon from the vantage point of the North Rim (Moran combined features of several North Rim viewpoints to create his painting). Rays of sunshine highlight part of the painting and spotlight other features, while dark shadows on the rim and rock pinnacles surrounding the overlook frame the image.
The view seems endless, fading into the misty skies on the distant horizon ‹ perhaps 10 miles away or perhaps hundreds of miles in the distance. The thin, silver Colorado River etches a route through the pinnacles near the center of the painting. Moisture-laden clouds squeeze through the spires and buttes of the inner canyon. Two dried-out Douglas firs wilt on the deserty rim, while prickly pear cacti flourish among the boulders. Puddles from the sudden rainstorm wink from their catchments on the limestone surface.
Many critics were not kind to Moran's painting; one writer, Clarence Cook of the Atlantic Monthly, compared it to Dante's descriptions of hell.
"The only aim of art is to feed the sense of beauty," Cook wrote. "It has no right to meddle with horrors and desolation."
But others recognized the greatness of Moran's creation. They held more modern beliefs about art, such as the idea that it could also convey emotion. In this context, "The Chasm of the Colorado" is both an amazing teaching tool and an expression of the occasionally violent forces (as well as the less dramatic ones) that carved the Canyon. In fact, the painting likely reveals Moran's own intense emotions about the "Grand Canyon of the Colorado."
Moran traveled back to the Grand Canyon many times during his career. In 1892, the artist agreed to paint a canvas for the Santa Fe Railway in exchange for free passage to the Canyon on the company's trains and stagecoaches. The railroad used the resulting painting, "The Grand Colorado" (1892), in travel publications, eventually promoting itself as the "Grand Canyon Line."
Until his death in 1926, many of Moran's Grand Canyon trips were at least partially funded by the Santa Fe. The railroad purchased many paintings and engravings from these trips, and Moran traded paintings and other works of art for railroad passage on several occasions.
Moran's "Chasm of the Colorado," which hangs today in the American Art Museum at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and his many subsequent works featuring the Grand Canyon helped popularize it. Although it took until 1919 for Grand Canyon National Park to become a reality, bills were introduced as early as the 1880s to protect the Canyon. The first formal protection was put in place in 1893, when President Benjamin Harrison signed into law the creation of Grand Canyon Forest Reserve.
(Todd Berger is managing editor at Grand Canyon Association. He is responsible for producing the park newspaper, The Guide, as well as articles like this which appeared in the Grand Canyon Historical Society newsletter.)