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Seascape / Thomas Moran

Essay/Description

Although best known for his depictions of the American West, Thomas Moran produced several seascapes, including this one, created two years before his death. Silhouetted against the horizon, a ship tilts back and to its side, suggestive of one last, perilous journey for the artist as the art world was leaving Moran’s naturalistic renderings behind. By the turn of the century in the United States, many artists, critics, and collectors had accepted Impressionism as a legitimate means of visual expression—although Moran had not. When Georges Braque (1882–1963) and Pablo Picasso (1881–1973) exhibited their early experiments in Cubism at New York City’s 1913 Armory Show, the work was met with disdain by many, although some were intrigued. Others would come round as more and more avant-garde art movements emerged. By the early twentieth century, Moran’s style was becoming passé, and some in the art world now viewed his work with derision.1 Moran, however, defiantly carried on in a style and visual vocabulary established in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

The association of ships with the voyage of life was a standard trope in European art for centuries2 and this work, created near the end of Moran’s life, alludes to several chapters in his career. Moran was essentially a self-taught artist, and his Seascape is inspired by the mentorship of his elder brother Edward (1829–1901), a successful marine painter, and the work of the British artist J. M. W. Turner (1775–1851). Edward encouraged Thomas’s artistic aspirations, lauding Turner’s “powerful marines” as superb examples for his younger brother to emulate. In 1862, the brothers traveled to England to view Turner’s work firsthand.3 Although Thomas was familiar with the British artist’s prints, the luminescent colors of Turner’s oil paintings were a revelation and remained an inspiration throughout his career. The burst of color and light at the center of Seascape is evocative of some of Turner’s most radiant paintings.

Another passage in Moran’s life is revealed in the foreground, where a waterfall cascades into a cavernous gorge, calling to mind the artist’s Lower Falls, Yellowstone Park (01.2344). Moran’s depictions of the West were an integral part of his artistic development and brought him renown. A significant portion of this “seascape,” in fact, is taken up by the Western-inspired landmass in the foreground. The ship on the horizon could be attempting to surmount the breakers and steer a path to the foreground—which is representative of Moran’s triumphs—or it could be heading for the Turneresque light and a place where the artist could go on painting in his own way, in his own style, forever.

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

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1 Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 303–4.
2 Miller, American Iconology, 186–208.
3 Anderson et al., Thomas Moran, 23–28.

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Title(s): 
Seascape
Creator(s): 
Thomas Moran (Artist)
Culture: 
American
Date: 
1924
Period: 
Hudson River School
Materials/Techniques: 
oil on canvas
Classification: 
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
01.2341
Previous Number(s): 
0127.2341; 39198
Department: 
Signed by hand in paint with colophon, "TMoran 1924" in lower right on recto.
Not On View

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