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Shoshone Falls on the Snake River / Thomas Moran

Essay/Description

“Not since his first sight of the Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon had he been so stirred and thrilled.”1 —Ruth Moran on her father Thomas Moran’s visit to Shoshone Falls, 1929

For Thomas Moran, the experience of seeing Shoshone Falls appears to have eased the numbing anguish brought about by the death of his wife, fellow artist Mary Nimmo Moran (1842–1899). Mary was fifty-seven years old when she succumbed to typhoid fever on the morning of September 25, 1899, in their home on East Hampton, Long Island, after a two-week illness.2 The following spring, according to art historian Anne Morand, the grief-stricken artist set out on a “voyage of consolation to the West.”3

Moran, accompanied by daughter Ruth, revisited some of his favorite western locations in Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah before arriving in Idaho to view Shoshone Falls.4 According to Ruth, the sight of the waterfall invigorated her father, as he had found a new project.5 Moran created a handful of sketches of the falls, and then eagerly returned home to work them up into this painting.6 The result is an artwork that at first glance may suggest a sense of the artist’s anguish in his depiction of the tumultuous waters and turbulent sky. Look more closely, however, because rays of light break through the lowering clouds and a rainbow symbolizing hope begins to materialize out of the mist of the falls in the lower left.

—SP 2021

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1 Quoted in Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 287, 377n119. Ruth Moran to Horace Albright, director of the National Park Service, in Ruth Moran Correspondence, no. 228, East Hampton Library.
2 Vittoria, “Nature and Nostalgia in the Art of Mary Nimmo Moran,” 301.
3 Morand, Thomas Moran: The Field Sketches, 81.
4 Morand, Thomas Moran: The Field Sketches, 81. In “Thomas Moran’s Shoshone Falls,” art historian Linda C. Hults argues the painting is a response to Niagara (1857) by Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900). She also suggests the painting reveals Moran’s concern for environmental issues, an argument challenged by historian Peter Boag in “Thomas Moran and Western Landscapes.” For Boag, Moran was an artist and a grieving widower in search of a new challenge. Moreover, Moran had visited the falls at the invitation of rancher Ira Burton Perrine, who envisioned building dams on the Snake River to create irrigation canals, which would promote development but diminish the falls. See also Blue Lakes, Idaho (02.1578).
5 Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 287. Earlier in his career, Moran depicted Shoshone Falls for an 1876 issue of The Aldine, probably basing his illustration on photographs by Timothy O’Sullivan, who worked on geological surveys of the West. It is possible Moran wanted to see the falls firsthand because he already planned to create this painting. Art historian Joni Kinsey suggests the artist may have been aware of efforts to designate Shoshone Falls as a national park. Moran had made images of several national parks and might have seen an opportunity to portray another. In 1902, however, the National Reclamation Act, which provided federal funding for irrigation projects in the West, superseded national park proposals for Shoshone Falls. As a result, construction began on a hydroelectric dam above the falls to divert water from the Snake River for irrigation. Upon the dam’s completion in 1905, the falls dried up, with periodic releases of “scenic flow” restoring the cascade. Kinsey, “Shoshone Falls,” 18. See also footnote 4, above.
6 The Gilcrease collection includes a field sketch, Shoshone Falls (13.851); the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum owns the other drawings.

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Title(s): 
Shoshone Falls on the Snake River; Shoshone Falls
Creator(s): 
Thomas Moran (Artist)
Culture: 
American
Date: 
1900
Period: 
Hudson River School
Materials/Techniques: 
oil on canvas
Classification: 
Object Type: 
Credit Line: 
Gift of the Thomas Gilcrease Foundation, 1955
Accession No: 
01.2339
Previous Number(s): 
0126.2339; 25314
Department: 
Signed by hand in paint with colophon, "TMoran. N.A. 1900." in lower left on recto.
Not On View

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