Description

    THOMAS MORAN (American 1837 - 1926)
    Devil's Tower, Green River, Wyoming, 1919
    Oil on canvas
    20 x 16in.
    Signed and dated at lower right, TMoran 1919. [TM in monogram]

    PROVENANCE:
    Ruth Moran, daughter of the artist, Santa Barbara, California;
    Newhouse Galleries, New York, NY, who acquired it from Ruth Moran prior to 1930;
    Private Collection;
    Newhouse Galleries, New York, NY;
    Mr. and Mrs. F. Howard Walsh, Fort Worth, Texas;
    Walsh Family Art Trust

    This commanding late work by Thomas Moran, one of the great nineteenth-century landscape painters of the American West, was based upon a sketch he had made of Devil's Tower, Wyoming, in 1892. Like the other great landscapists associated with the Hudson River School, such as Frederic Church and Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran ventured far into nature (and far beyond the Catskills and Adirondacks that gave the "School" its name) for firsthand inspiration of the breathtaking scenery he later worked up in the studio from small drawings and watercolors he had produced on site.

    The present vista of 1919 was a work Moran painted during the late years of his career, after he had moved in 1916 from his longtime home and studio in East Hampton, New York, to the more hospitable climate of Santa Barbara, California. No longer able to undertake arduous journeys by horse or mule into the rugged mountains and canyons he still enjoyed painting, the elderly artist relied instead upon a trove of plein air reference material he had made earlier, sometimes decades before. This rainbow-hued painting of the dramatic rock formation is based upon the pencil drawing he had inscribed, signed, and dated "Devil's Tower 1892 TM"(6-15/16 x 4-15/16 in.) now in the collection of Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, National Historic Site, Gift of Ruth Moran, inv. no. 4222 (reproduced in Anne Morand, Thomas Moran: The Field Sketches 1856-1923, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1996, p. 255, no. 810). The format of the drawing is tall in order to frame the rocky tower, and a similar format was used for the painting. Additionally, while some of the foreground motifs in the life sketch were shuffled around in the final work in the interest of aesthetic refinement, most of the key features of the small drawing made their way quite directly into the final composition. The tower is placed left of center in the upper right quadrant. Ringing the top of the tower is a horseshoe-shaped cloud. A prominent Ponderosa pine balances the tower in the foreground at lower right, and the curving Belle Fourche River flows along the same course through the middle of the design. Two other sketches in the same collection, made at the same time, offer slightly different views as well as color notations, particularly in regard to the brewing storm cloud (Morand, nos. 820a and 820b).

    The formation of the dramatic rocky tower that attracted Moran and other artists and photographers had long puzzled geologists. The relationship of the tower to the local landscape suggests it was originally buried and exhumed by erosion of the Belle Fourche valley. Geologists now estimate that approximately sixty million years ago molten magma forced its way up through sedimentary rock and then cooled underground. As the magma cooled it formed igneous rock which fractured into the basalt columns that are now exposed. Sixty-million years of erosion gradually wore away the softer rock and the tall stone monolith was exposed.

    In 1906, fourteen years after Moran visited it, and thirteen years before he painted this record of its dramatic beauty, Devil's Tower became the first designated National Monument in the United States created under the Federal Antiquities Act. Of course, long before the United States revered it, and Moran sketched it in the company of William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), one of the most renowned nineteenth-century photographers of the American West, Devil's Tower was sacred to the Native Americans. They have several legends about how it was formed. One story tells of seven sisters playing in the woods then encountering a bear. They ran to a small rock where they stood upon it and prayed, "Please take pity on us rock and save us from the bear." Touched by their faith, the rock took pity on the girls and grew into the sky. The bear tried to climb up the rock, digging its claws into the sides, and carving them with deep grooves as he slid down to the ground. The seven sisters were then taken into the sky by the Great Spirit, and are the seven stars of the Pleiades constellation.

    Thomas Moran's journals document not only his knowledge of the Native American legend, but also record the particulars of his visit to the site on June 26, 1892. The afternoon before, as they were making their approach with horses which were pulling a wagon full of gear, the men were caught in a hailstorm, "a fusillade of ice-balls [which] struck with a force as if coming from a sling...Our hands were beginning to show purple lumps where they had been struck, and our heads were aching, and sore, and lumpy, from the pelting ice-balls." (For an account of Moran's trip, see Thurman Wilkins, Thomas Moran. Artist of the Mountains, second revised ed., University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Oklahoma, 1998, pp. 269-271.) After finding refuge for the night in an old camp with nothing to eat and old prickly pine boughs for mattresses, they waded through sludge in the morning, and found a ranch where they finally broke their thirty-eight hour fast. They reached the Tower at noon and eagerly sketched and photographed it for the remainder of the day. In the artist's own words, seeing that columnar tusk rising some 2,000 feet above the Belle Fourche River was "a grand and imposing sight. . . one of the remarkable features of this country."

    Moran's experiences at Devil's Tower eventually yielded this beautiful painting, which bears no evidence of the physical hardship he had endured to record it. Perhaps the reason was that his discomfort had had another outlet. Shortly after his journey, Moran was encouraged by his wife to write a full account of the experience, detailing both its awe-inspiring and its rougher moments. The artist eventually published it in the January 1893 issue of Century magazine, together with four of his drawings.



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