We have talked a lot about the National Parks in this course (obviously). We have also touched on how instrumental artists were at bringing the images to the public, and offering a glance as to what wonders hid out in the Western wilderness. For my final art interpretation for this course, I would like to talk about a work in particular related to the world’s first National Park, Yellowstone.
The above painting is by the American landscape painter, Thomas Moran. This painting is but one of many the artist would create over the course of his life. Along with photographer William Henry Jackson, Moran was an instrumental force for giving the civilized world a glimpse of America’s “Wonderland.”
Moran’s interest in Yellowstone first started when he agreed to illustrate an article about it in Scribner’s Monthly. He completed drawings of Yellowstone’s wonders from amateur sketches without ever seeing the location firsthand. This would change in 1871, when the United States Geological Survey conducted an expedition into Yellowstone, led by Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden. From about July 22 to August 9, 1871, Thomas Moran traveled around what would become the 1st National Park, and completed a number of sketches of its landscape. Perhaps one of the most famous of his images is the painting featured above, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Thomas Moran’s paintings William Henry Jackson’s photographs circulated through Congress, and were fundamental in the creation of the National Park.
Moran’s above image is spectacular. It’s colors are vibrant. Its mix of golden yellows and rustic reds and oranges captures a grandiose sense of light and space. The painting is rendered with an energy that, to me, creates an almost atmospheric quality. This image is not static. Things are in motion. The waterfall in the distance is cascading, and mist rises from the crevice below where the waterfall joins the river.
What is also important to note is the sense of scale in this image. Several people can be seen overlooking the cliff in the foreground. They are but specs compared to the vastness of the Yellowstone canyon. What I should also point out in relation to scale is how monumental the painting itself is. Moran rendered this image on a 7′ X 12′ canvas. This monumental scale is impossible to see in reproduction on this blog, and admittedly, I can’t quite envision its scale myself, since I haven’t seen it in person. However, I can imagine that the scale of the painting definitely heightens its impression of the sublime..
And on that note, I will point out the level of “sublime” is this image. This painting displays several tropes we have discussed earlier this semester. We see an image of a vast, sunlit landscape. Overlooking this landscape are a small group of people, shadowed by the sheer immensity of their surroundings. Light cascades down into the canyon, but there is a deep shadow over the foreground, as if a storm has cleared, and light is raining through the passing clouds. A storm-blasted tree is visible in the bottom left-hand corner of the image. These tropes represent the sheer power and grandeur of nature. People are insignificant in the eyes of nature. In this aspect, Yellowstone is sacred, and unmarred by human influence.
In this aspect, the painting serves a political function. This image, as well as others painted by Moran, is showing Easterners what exactly is out in the vast wilderness called the West. Out West is a wonderland, filled with erupting geysers. A wonderland filled with bountiful hot springs. A wonderland with with towering waterfalls and winding rivers. In this wonderland, one can witness and experiences nature’s overwhelming power over human life. But one can also find temples of stone and shrines of water. In Yellowstone, there is wildness, but there is also beauty. This is the Sublime. And for Moran, Jackson, and others on the expedition, these traits were worth saving. Their images and their lobbying would soon change not just their lives, but American history itself. It’s thanks to them that Yellowstone National Park exists.
To me, this is a reminder of not just the power of nature, but of the power artists have. If it weren’t for the many masterfully composed, crafted, and rendered images given to us by their hand, I’d argue that the Parks probably would not have been as easily saved. Putting this into perspective, this is a reminder of the power of the power that each and every one of us has an American. The artists and writers… the soldiers and the philanthropists… the immigrants and our Presidents… The National Parks’ histories are filled with tales of individuals who decided that there were areas worth protecting. It is the act of the individual which opens the eyes of the many.
And this, I think, is a profoundly American virtue.