DescriptionTHOMAS MORAN (American 1837 - 1926)
Moonlight. Icebergs in Mid Atlantic, 1910
Signed and dated at lower right (recto), TMoran 1910 [TM in monogram]
Signed, dated, and titled by the artist at lower right (verso), Moonlight. / Icebergs in Mid Atlantic. / TMoran. 1910. [TM in monogram]
Oil on unlined canvas with original stretcher bars
20 x 30in.
Newhouse Galleries, New York, NY;
Mr. and Mrs. F. Howard Walsh, Fort Worth, Texas;
Walsh Family Art Trust
Volcanoes and precipices, canyons and buttes, waterfalls, jungles, icebergs, and the Aurora Borealis were the stuff of nineteenth-century American landscape painting when British implant, Thomas Moran, came of age as a painter in the United States. Frederic Church, whose vast canvases epitomized the genre at the time, was achieving enormous celebrity for his scenes of Nature at her most pyrotechnic-scenes he traveled the world to find. On occasion, Church also painted man's contribution to the spectacle in places like Venice where the man-made monuments to God and the greater glory of the Republic only enhance the shimmer on the water (see Moran's work in this vein, Splendors of Venice, in the present auction).
Early in his career as a landscape painter, young Thomas Moran looked to Church as the model for what he was hoping to achieve, and as he matured, Moran kept watching. The young painter also had two successful artistic mentors even closer to home in his older brother Edward (1829-1901), who had achieved a fine reputation as a marine painter by the later 1850s, and his brother's talented associate, James Hamilton, whose ability to paint water earned him the moniker "the American Turner." Young Thomas joined his brother's studio, and went to London with him in 1861 and 1862. There he saw the paintings of Turner firsthand, an experience that exerted a vital and lifelong influence upon his work. Being able to paint water soon became just as large a priority as learning to paint mountains.
In late April of 1890, on his second trip to Venice, Moran's ship was en route to Antwerp when it passed an iceberg. The spectacle provided Moran with another opportunity to emulate Church, whose enormous painting The Icebergs (1861, Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas) he must certainly have known in addition to treatments of the subject by other artists including Albert Bierstadt (Iceberg seen from Steamer of 1883, Private Collection).
Moran made a rapid pencil sketch recording the contour of the ice formation as well as its specific longitude and latitude, 44.59 and 38.06 respectively (graphite on wove, 4 ½ x 7 in, Collection of the Gilcrease Museum, inv. no. 1396.1236; reproduced in Anne Morand, Thomas Moran. The Field Sketches 1856-1923, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman and London, 1996, no. 759, p. 75). Details he couldn't sketch quickly enough, he described verbally: "water pouring over the sides of berg. . . Deep Blue water with great rollers capped with foam." Moran painted several canvases depicting icebergs over the course of the next two decades, including the present work. His most monumental treatment of the theme was Specters of the North of 1891, measuring 74 ¼ x 118 ¼ in., now in the Gilcrease Museum (in. no. 126.2340). In this work, the sea is far greener than in the present work, and the sky has far less drama. The most notable difference between the present painting and his earlier interpretation of the subject, however, is the presence of a foundering vessel in the foreground. Its inclusion links Specters of the North more closely with Turner's work than the present painting, which has a different timbre altogether.
In Moonlight. Icebergs in Mid Atlantic, produced twenty years after the artist's firsthand citing of icebergs, the entire surface of the painting is activated. In comparison with Specters of the North, the present work is more emotionally agitated, even without the presence of a shipwreck in it. Moran designed Moonlight. Icebergs in Mid Atlantic as a lozenge of illuminated activity with all four corners falling into darkness. The painter forces the viewer into the central zone where a riot of clouds, waves, jutting mountains of floating ice, and water lose their discreteness. Ice resembles cloud formations and vice versa. The foamy head of a wave sometimes looks sharp enough to be ice instead. By confusing the distinctions, Moran artfully captured the heady confusion of being on a choppy sea, where there are no landmarks, a brewing storm, and glimpses of treacherous icebergs behind screens of rain. In this way, the present painting is a stunning combination of the highly romanticized view of the power of nature, and the naturalism of an actual ocean voyage. Without resorting to the anecdote of the sinking ship, Moran communicated the danger of icebergs through the brilliantly rendered water, a sky that rivals a Ruisdael, and a palette of judiciously chosen colors. Here, Moran chose to forego the sickly sea greens that described so many paintings of the period, which look artificial to our eyes now. He deepened the greens in the undersides of the waves in the foreground, and boldly used those nondescript colors in the sky that are hard to name but make all the difference in terms of naturalism. Moran was a good colorist, and recognized that the broken colors made the pure colors sing through contrast, and the muddy patches in the thunderheads overhead do just that against the vivid blue at upper right, where there is a clearing just above another icy projection.
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