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The painting that inspired a National Park

Thomas Moran's "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" painting captures the grandeur of the American West. His work, influenced by Turner, blends geology and artistry, creating a composite view of the landscape. The painting played a key role in promoting Yellowstone as a national park, influencing the expansion of the Northern Pacific Railroad.

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Video transcript

(light piano music) - [Beth] We're in the galleries of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, looking at an enormous painting by Thomas Moran called the "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone." - [Eleanor] And this is Moran's first large-scale painting of the American West. He wasn't actually interested in going out West until he illustrated two articles for "Scribner's Magazine." It peaked his interest, and he wanted to see it for himself. - [Beth] If you were out East where most of the population lived in the era before photography, people really couldn't even imagine. - [Eleanor] And that's why when Ferdinand Hayden develops his survey, he takes along both a photographer and an artist. He takes William Henry Jackson as the photographer, and then there's this 34-year-old city kid from Philadelphia who has to learn to ride a horse in order to go out West who signs up for it. And so for 16 days, Moran is helping Jackson compose his views. Moran is then looking through Jackson's viewfinder in order to see the picturesque prospects of the landscape. This is right after the transcontinental railroad goes through. - [Beth] Which is 1869, but which is much further south. So we have the beginnings of an idea of a railroad that connects the Great Lakes region to the West Coast. - [Eleanor] The railroads are looking for incentives for people to make that journey. And what Moran and Hayden bring back from Yellowstone is intriguing enough and beautiful enough that it goes from being called Colter's Hell to what the Northern Pacific Railroad markets as Wonderland. - [Beth] Moran makes it seem almost heavenly, a place that isn't even real. - [Eleanor] You don't smell the sulfur even though the colors are all accurate. What you get instead is what you get when you go out to Yellowstone, which is, in my biased view, the prettiest square inch of earth on the North American continent. - [Beth] It's so interesting to think about Jackson photographing. And of course photographing in black and white with heavy equipment that he's walking around with that's cumbersome and difficult to set up. And Moran's sketching. And it's important to remember too, I think, while we're living in the era of mass photography that this is not an actual view. This is a composite view. And in fact, the word composite doesn't really do it justice because what Moran is trying to do is give us the impression, the overwhelming feeling of being in this place, which a direct transcription might not be able to do. - [Eleanor] And in fact, the condor flying in the upper part of the canvas is meant to reinforce the gigantic scale. Although the Park Service has designated places like Artist's Point and Inspiration Point, and they are really close to where Moran did his sketches over 150 years ago, you can't actually stand anywhere and photograph this particular scene in this Moran or in any other of his panoramic pictures. - [Beth] And it really is that combination of specificity and broad grandeur that Moran and others bring to American landscape painting. So we'd see that there's real attention to the geology, to different kinds of rock formations, and even different kinds of moss and plant life. - [Eleanor] And actually since he's traveling with a geological survey, Moran is getting a crash course in American geology. And you can see it in the foreground rocks, in the way that he has captured the layers of rock eroding one on top of the other. You can see it in the scumbled brush work on the far left in this sage brush where he gives you that spiky sense of what it was like to brush up against it, the light that forms on the pine trees in the center that reminds you of the depth of field that he's trying to capture. Moran in particular was deeply influenced by Turner. He points out that Turner regularly sacrifices nature in order to get the larger aesthetic effect. And what Moran is trying to say is, "I am not out here just illustrating guidebooks, "I am giving you the impression of the place, "a distillation of the place, the magnitude of the place "in a single scene." And then Moran gives you the figures. There gesturing is one of the explorers, perhaps Hayden, talking with a local American Indian, pointing out something to him. And to their left, there's a group of their three horses. I believe the middle figure might be William Henry Jackson with photography equipment on the white horse. But notice the man sitting next to him with his sketchbook open. That's Thomas Moran with his back to the view. It's as if to say, "I can commit this to memory "and give it back to you, and it will all be fine." - [Beth] "I'm an artist." - [Eleanor] Yeah. - [Beth] So let's talk about that Native American figure. Part of the myth of the West is that this was untouched wilderness. - [Eleanor] No such thing as untouched wilderness. It's true that this is not cultivated in the sense that we think of with cities and towns and railroads, but the Indians themselves had a dramatic impact on the landscape. What's interesting here is also that relationship looks collegial, and it's a reminder that every American explorer had to develop relationships with the local Indian tribes for their own survival. How do we get through this? Where do we find food? How do we protect ourselves from our enemies? - [Beth] But this was not always as peaceful as it appears in this painting, because two years after this, gold will be discovered in this area. More and more, people will be moved onto a reservation and Sitting Bull and Custer will come head-to-head in this very area in only a few years. - [Eleanor] The Plains Indian Wars erupt after the American Civil War, and intensify around the time of the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. And so the idea of finding a way to work within this paradigm of finding a way to ensure mutual survival is as much an aspirational thing for artists like Moran and explorers like Hayden as it is a nostalgic look at what might have been in light of the brutality of American Indian policy. - [Beth] And we have this enormous expansion west and northwest at this time in American history. - [Eleanor] Moran will reprise this composition for the 1893 World's Fair, and it's with that 1893 version that Frederick Jackson Turner will deliver what is now called his "Frontier Thesis," the proclamation that we have now colonized the American continent from west to east, and all that is remaining is to fill in the gaps in the middle. And although that's a bit overly dramatic, there's a fundamental truth to that that the coasts became populated with cities and infrastructure long before the middle section of the American West did. - [Beth] So let's go back to talking about the Northern Pacific Railroad that Jay Cooke was president of. - [Eleanor] The Northern Pacific Railroad was interested in putting spurs that would get its patrons to the local hot springs. So Manitou Springs, Colorado Springs, Carmel. All of those places, they now saw as alternative resorts to Baden-Baden. And in fact, one of their slogans was "See Europe, but see America first." So Cooke ends up helping to underwrite the whole enterprise. And when Moran comes back, he is clued into the fact that Hayden plans to present his survey report along with William Henry Jackson's photographs and Moran's watercolors to Congress with the proposal that they set aside Yellowstone as the first official national park. In anticipation of that, Moran takes out a studio here in Washington, D.C., and begins to work on this picture. And in March of 1872 when Grant signs the legislation, the painting is finished. Congress then buys the picture and puts it on view in the U.S. Capitol. Jay Cooke, meanwhile, has what he wants, which is the designation of a national park that will then make it possible for him to put the spur line into what will become the Old Faithful Inn. - [Beth] So Moran continues to paint western scenes. - [Eleanor] He will eventually refer to himself as Thomas "Yellowstone" Moran. If you go out there today, even with the tourists there, get off of the roads, and it does not take long before you are back in a place where you can really feel the years slough away. And it is as though you are with Moran out there on the rim of the Yellowstone River. (light piano music)