Thomas Moran was born 12 February 1837 in Bolton, England, not far from Manchester, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution. Several generations of the Moran family had worked as handloom weavers in Bolton until the introduction of power looms radically changed the industry. In 1842/1843, seeking public education for his children and economic opportunity in a new land, Thomas Moran, Sr., journeyed to America. The following year his wife and children joined him and the reunited family settled in Kensington, a suburb of Philadelphia, where they became part of a well-established community of immigrant textile workers.
While still a teenager Thomas became an apprentice at the Philadelphia engraving firm of Scattergood and Telfer. After three years he withdrew from his apprenticeship and began working in the studio of his older brother, Edward, who had begun to establish himself as a marine painter. Serving, in effect, a second apprenticeship, Moran benefitted not only from the advice of his brother but also from that of James Hamilton (1819-1878), a well-known Philadelphia painter who had befriended Edward. Described by contemporaries as the "American Turner," Hamilton may have sparked Thomas Moran's life-long interest in the work of English artist J.M.W. Turner.
In 1861, after several years of studying Turner's work in reproduction, Thomas and Edward journeyed to London where they spent several months studying and copying Turner's work at the National Gallery. A decade later, when Thomas journeyed west to join Ferdinand Vandiver Hayden's expedition to Yellowstone, the watercolors he produced on site bore clear evidence of his debt to Turner.
Moran's trip to Yellowstone in 1871 marked the turning point of his career. The previous year he had been asked by Scribner's Magazine to rework sketches made in Yellowstone by a member of an earlier expedition party. Intrigued by the geysers and mudpots of Yellowstone, he borrowed money to make the trip himself. Numerous paintings and commissions resulted from this journey, but the sale of his enormous (7 by 12 feet) Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872, National Museum of American Art) to Congress shortly after passage of the bill that set Yellowstone aside as the first National Park, brought Moran considerable attention.
In 1873, following up on his earlier success, Moran joined John Wesley Powell's expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. Shortly after his return he set to work on a second canvas equal in size to his earlier Yellowstone painting. In 1874 Congress purchased Chasm of the Colorado (1873-1874, National Museum of American Art), which became the second of Moran's western landscapes to hang in the Capitol.
That same year Moran traveled to Denver and then north to see the Mountain of the Holy Cross--a massive mountain with a cross of snow on its side. The resulting painting became Moran's chief contribution to the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876. Iconic in its union of wilderness and religion, the Mountain of the Holy Cross became one of Moran's best known works.
His reputation established, Moran continued to travel widely during the following decades. He returned to Europe several times again following trails blazed by Turner. In 1883 he journeyed to Mexico. In later years he returned to the Grand Canyon and traveled more extensively in Arizona and New Mexico, producing a number of striking works of the pueblos at Acoma and Laguna. Extraordinarily productive, both as a painter and an etcher, Moran continued to work well into his eighth decade. At his death in Santa Barbara, California, in August 1926, he was memorialized as the "Dean of American Landscape Painters." [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Wilkins, Thurman. Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains. Norman, Oklahoma, 1966.
Clark, Carol. Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West. Austin, 1980.
Morand, Anne and Nancy Friese. The Prints of Thomas Moran in the Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art. Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1986.
Kinsey, Joni Louise. Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West. Washington, D.C., 1992.
Morand, Anne. Thomas Moran: The Field Sketches, 1856-1923. Norman, Oklahoma, 1996.
Anderson, Nancy K. et al. Thomas Moran. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa; Seattle Art Museum. Washington, D.C., 1997.
Torchia, Robert Wilson, with Deborah Chotner and Ellen G. Miles. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part II. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1998: 10-11.