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The Upper Falls of the Yellowstone / Thomas Moran


In The Upper Falls of the Yellowstone, Thomas Moran portrayed the sparkling, eye-catching quality of the cataract through the skillful application of pure white pigment over the soft gray and light tan hues of the torrent. The patch of rich russet on the cliff face, the silvery gray rocks opposite, and the dusky blue water below provide a striking contrast to the effervescent white of the falls. As our eye is drawn downward with the cascading water, we note a tiny figure perched on the rock in the foreground. This diminutive figure provides a sense of scale and invites the viewer into the scene. The towering falls dwarf us and we stand awestruck before the power of nature. The explosion of the cataract as it plunges downward activates our senses, and we can almost hear the deafening roar of the waterfall and feel the spray on our faces as the mist wafts through the air. Moran portrayed all of this in a surprisingly small painting: the watercolor measures around 10 1/4 by 8 1/4 inches, probably not much larger than the artist’s hand.

Moran is best known for his enormous oil paintings depicting the American West, such as Shoshone Falls on the Snake River (01.2339), which measures a massive 6 by 12 feet. Although Moran frequently made field sketches in watercolor, which he later worked up into large oil paintings, he also produced small watercolors on commission. The smaller scale of these works generated a greater sense of intimacy, as they could be easily held in the hands, perfect for the private collector. The Upper Falls of the Yellowstone was one of sixteen watercolors commissioned by a wealthy railroad investor, William Blackmore of England. Blackmore visited Yellowstone in 1872, but six years later, beset by financial failures, committed suicide.1 The watercolors remained in his family until they were sold to George Hormel of California, and later to Thomas Gilcrease.2

—Sandra Pauly, Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Moran Collection Research, 2020

1 Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, 208n35. See also Hamber, Collecting the West, 151–52. According to Blackmore’s biographer, Anthony Hamber, the English investor saw a set of Moran’s field sketches from the artist’s 1871 trip to Yellowstone. He commissioned a set of watercolors from the artist, and then Blackmore traveled to Yellowstone with his wife, Mary. She died on the trip, and it is sometimes reported the watercolors were created in her memory.
2 Clark, Thomas Moran: Watercolors of the American West, 41–42.

Curatorial Remarks

Blackmore Set, no. 12. Sandra Pauly, Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Moran Collection Research 2.23.22

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The Upper Falls of the Yellowstone
Thomas Moran (Artist)
Hudson River School
watercolor on paper
Object Type: 
Credit Line: 
Gift of the Thomas Gilcrease Foundation, 1955
Accession No: 
Previous Number(s): 
0226.1451; 11281
Not On View

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