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Specters from the North / Thomas Moran


In April 1890, Thomas Moran sailed aboard a White Star liner from New York City to Europe accompanied by his wife, Mary Nimmo Moran (1842–1899). When the ship was several days out at sea, reports circulated among the passengers that an iceberg was adrift nearby.1 Moran spent hours on deck in freezing temperatures sketching the glacial behemoth, complete with notations on longitude and latitude.2 These quickly executed drawings impart Moran’s excitement as he encountered an iceberg firsthand. Later, the artist would channel the thrill of that moment into this oil painting, Specters from the North.3 Even though it was more than two decades before the RMS Titanic would sink after hitting an iceberg, Moran clearly appreciated the danger the bergs presented, as evidenced by the wreckage he portrayed in the painting’s foreground. This bit of battered wood was also a reference to Frederic Edwin Church’s The Icebergs (1861, Dallas Museum of Art, 1979.28) and although not obvious, the title of Moran’s work creates an additional connection to Church’s painting.

Church’s work received considerable fanfare in 1861 when it was first shown in New York City. The sheer scale of the icebergs, which filled almost fifty square feet of canvas, astounded the public and critics. A critic for the New-York Daily Tribune warned, “the eye feels the first shock,” and the columnist for the Boston Christian Register suggested that the painting would “follow” viewers “home and haunt them for weeks.”4 Church displayed the work under the title The North, in honor of the first shots fired in the Civil War, the initial skirmish having occurred just twelve days before the exhibition opened. What these glacial edifices suggested about the North and abolitionism, however, was not clear. Two years later, when Church prepared to show the painting in Great Britain, he changed the title to Icebergs and added a small, shattered mast and crow’s nest in the foreground.5 The title of Moran’s work, Specters from the North, alludes to Church’s original name for his painting. Moran also followed Church’s example of adding something created by humans, but damaged to suggest humanity’s fragility in the face of the powerful forces of nature.

—Sandra Pauly, Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Moran Collection Research, 2021

1 Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 254.
2 The Gilcrease collection includes Ocean, Birds, and Icebergs (13.1218), Iceberg (13.1236), Icebergs in the Middle Atlantic (13.1237), Berg to the North of Us (13.1238), Tower of Spray (13.1239), Iceberg (13.1240), Berg to the North after Passing (13.1241), and Icebergs (13.1242).
3 Gilcrease also owns a wood engraving by Moran, Icebergs (15.441).
4 Quoted in Raab, “‘Precisely These Objects,’” 588–89.
5 Raab, “‘Precisely These Objects,’” 588–89.

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Specters from the North; Spectres from the North; Spectres from the North or Icebergs in Mid-Atlantic
Thomas Moran (Artist)
Hudson River School
oil on canvas
Object Type: 
Credit Line: 
Gift of the Thomas Gilcrease Foundation, 1955
Accession No: 
Previous Number(s): 
0126.2340; 25315
Not On View

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