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Idealizing The West — Painter Thomas Moran And An Epic Utah Landscape

A woman standing in front of a large nineteenth century painting hanging in a museum.
Elaine Clark / KUER
Stephenie Stebich, director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, stands in front of Thomas Moran's "Mist in Kanab Canyon, Utah." It's on display through October 2020 at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts.

The Utah Museum of Fine Arts just opened an exhibit that features three masterpieces on loan from the Smithsonian. The trio of iconic landscapes, each very different in style, includes the 1932 Manhattan by Georgia O’Keeffe and Alma Thomas’ 1972 Red Sunset, Old Pond Concerto.

Stephanie Stebich is director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. KUER’s Elaine Clark sat down with her at UMFA in front of the third piece: a 19th century landscape of Southern Utah.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Stephanie Stebich: When you first encounter Thomas Moran's Mist in Kanab [Canyon], Utah from 1892, you're just sucked into the painting. Your eyes are taken up towards the left corner where you see a wonderful light emanating — the mist around this jutting geological rock formation. Then the artist takes you to the right and you see a bird in flight. He invites you to circle around to the right and see light hitting another great rock formation. And then it takes you down where your eye is stopped by a group of boulders that encircle clear, crisp water in beautiful blues and greens.

If you look closely, the artist captures your eye with a red dot, signifying a figure — likely a Native American figure — standing miniscule in this epic landscape. And then the artist sweeps your eye to the left. Even the trees are small, as again, these powerful rock formations pull you upwards into the sky.

It's a work that just captures your imagination. With landscapes in particular, the artist is very thoughtful about where they make the viewer stand. We must be standing on a rocky outcropping too. We have a view down to the small figure in the foreground. And yet we still have this vista, this view upwards to the sky and then the sunlight that tells us that this is a sacred place. It must be an important place.

Elaine Clark: Thomas Moran started coming out west in the 1870s. What were he and other artists of the time looking for when they came here?

SS: Thomas Moran had a good career, a serviceable career in the world of of etchings and illustrations. But he got that lucky call: He was recommended to join an expedition. And so this young Philadelphia fellow had to teach himself how to ride on horseback, because that was the only way he was going to be able to be part of very important expeditions. The notable one that made his reputation was in 1871 when he joined photographer William Henry Jackson on the Hayden expedition, which brought him out to Yellowstone. And that made his career.

Those Yellowstone paintings that he brought back would forever change American life and American history. These images were brought to Congress and really persuaded then President Grant to create a uniquely American institution — that would be the National Park system. And because of that success, he was invited once again in 1873 to go out to the Grand Canyon with a side expedition to southern Utah as well as Idaho. This was with John Wesley Powell as well as the photographer John K. Hillers, and it's likely that the painter and photographer set out to find majestic landscapes to do the same thing in this landscape as they did with Yellowstone.

Landscape painting of a towering mountain with misty peaks and a river below. A man in red is dwarfed by mountain and rock.
Credit Smithsonian American Art Museum, bequest of Mrs. Bessie B. Croffut.
Thomas Moran, Mist in Kanab Canyon, Utah, 1892, oil on canvas.

EC: Moran said, "My general scope is not realistic. All my tendencies are towards idealization." What did he mean by that?

SS: We like to think that artists are faithful, and yet we have to remember at this time it is the beginning of photography. And there would be an epic struggle between the realism of photography and the realism that artists also employed. And yet the artist could frame the scene in a very different way, could add light in a way that had perhaps mystical or symbolic purposes.

Certainly with landscapes, there is a grandeur that even with the best of photography, we can't capture. Our eyes can see in a way that even technology can't bring to life the sense of color. And it is very evocative. One can almost in looking at this painting, stream running down, one can almost sense the mist in the air. These are things that the artist evokes, idealizes for us. And that is, of course, why we are so moved by the work of great artists like Thomas Moran.

EC: How did Moran's contemporaries, the public of his time, react to this?

SS: This is a fascinating moment in American history where there are these very important expeditions that are launched to the West. They are military in purpose. They may be scientific as well. And there are a group of people who are heading off to map, to discover, to catalog, to better understand this incredible land that is America.

Artists are trained at this particular moment in a European tradition, and artistic interests are more in capturing cathedrals and castles, which are these European markers of importance. And what does America, as a still fairly young country, have? Well, there is suddenly an appreciation that we have the grandeur of nature, of an unparalleled environment, and certainly why people have always flocked to Utah, as settlers, as visitors and artists even. And of course, native peoples understood the power of the landscape. And [these were] contested landscapes and they still are today as we balance the need for recreation, leisure involving motorized cars. And, of course, the incredible resources that are still to be found in these spaces.

You know, he chose to call himself Thomas "Yellowstone" Moran. I think that is so evocative of how he saw his place in the unfolding history of the West. These were incredibly arduous journeys, not for the faint of heart. But they were there for a higher purpose and they, too, saw the awe in nature. And for them to bring it back so powerfully to the rest of us, that's a gift.

EC: Well, not just in geography, but across time, too.

SS: Across time. Well said. I think it is as fresh now as it was when it was completed.

EC: What makes a masterpiece?

SS: When we talk about masterpieces in art, we talk about those works that have a timelessness, have a universal quality, are so evocative of a time and a place and frankly set the bar for other artists to follow and are highlights in an artist's career.

Certainly, critical acclaim plays a role in what is considered a masterpiece. But it is also the individual's reaction to it. There are works that make you stop. That have you exclaim, "Wow." And I think a masterpiece always has that "wow" factor. 

Thomas Moran’s “Mist in Kanab Canyon, Utah,” along with the paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and Alma Thomas, is on display through October of next year at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts on the campus of the University of Utah.

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