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Grand Canyon of the Colorado

Essay/Description

Thomas Moran created this sketch when he accompanied Major John Wesley Powell’s 1873 expedition to the Grand Canyon of Arizona.1 The watercolor admirably captures some of the extraordinary hues of the area, such as the dusky blue gray of the rocks, the brilliant red striations of the canyon walls, and even a touch of bright blue for a pool of water, perhaps left over from a recent rainfall. The most striking feature, however, is the black boulder in the foreground that sits precariously close to the edge of the rock shelf. Although this is a field sketch and probably what Moran observed, the artist’s portrayal of the boulder is intriguing.

As Moran scholar Joni Kinsey has noted, we think of rocks as enduring, steadfast, and strong, but this boulder’s position indicates just the opposite, as it could tumble over at any moment. According to Kinsey, we can envision the boulder as a metaphor of sorts, a reminder that this landscape is not permanent, but rather a place where remarkable transformations take place.2 Indeed, the rocks of this region have been subjected for eons to the erosive forces of the rain and the swift waters of the Colorado River, which have carved out the massive gorge we refer to as the Grand Canyon.

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

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1 Moran’s trip with geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden to Yellowstone in 1871 inspired the artist to create the massive oil painting The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872, Smithsonian American Art Museum, lent by the Department of the Interior Museum, L.1968.84.1). Moran’s trip with Powell inspired the production of its pendant, The Chasm of the Colorado (1873–74, Smithsonian American Art Museum, lent by the Department of the Interior Museum, L.1968.84.2). Anderson et al., Thomas Moran, 56.
2 Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, 39–40. Kinsey observes that this watercolor probably served as a preparatory sketch for Moran’s oil painting The Chasm of the Colorado, in which the unsteadily perched boulder makes an appearance.

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Title(s): 
Grand Canyon of the Colorado
Creator(s): 
Thomas Moran Moran (Artist)
Culture: 
American
Date: 
1873
Period: 
Hudson River School
Materials/Techniques: 
watercolor and graphite on paper
Classification: 
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
02.880
Previous Number(s): 
0236.880; 32557
Department: 
Not On View

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