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First Sketch Made in the West at Green River, Wyoming / Thomas Moran

Essay/Description

In 1871, Thomas Moran traveled to the western United States to join geologist Ferdinand Hayden’s expedition to the Yellowstone region. Through careful editing and a judicious use of color, Moran recorded his first impression of the West on a piece of paper measuring a mere 3 3/4 by 8 1/4 inches. To capture the panoramic sweep of the Plains as they stretched out to meet the distant mountain buttes, the artist used a limited palette applied in bands of brown, white, and blue, sparingly highlighted with lavender and pink. Absent in the image, however, is any indication of the train that brought Moran to the area or of the railroad town of Green River.

The Union Pacific Railroad, in a competition with the Central Pacific Railroad to span the continent, arrived in the area three years earlier. The Union Pacific workers quickly built a bridge over Green River to accommodate the coming rail line, and a town bearing the river’s name sprang up nearby. No trace of the bridge or the town and its church, school, brewery, and hotel appears in Moran’s sketch.1 The artist was apparently intent on portraying the spirit of the West with its wide, open spaces and the mountains that hover like ghostly apparitions in the distance.

As art historian Anne Morand points out, in this watercolor there is something of the Roman ruins as depicted by Moran in The Great Aqueduct of the Campagna, Rome (02.860) and Palace of the Caesars, Rome (02.941).2 For many Anglo-Americans, the marvels of the Western landscape would come to be seen as rivaling any of Europe’s architectural monuments or the remnants of its ancient civilizations.

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

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1 Anderson et al., Thomas Moran, 48. William Henry Jackson (1843–1942), who accompanied the Hayden expedition to Yellowstone in 1871, photographed the area. Often, the photographs clearly show the town and bridge Moran would have encountered. These photographs are housed in a variety of collections, including the Colorado Historical Society in Denver. Moreover, Moran did, on at least one occasion, depict the train and bridge in a wood engraving, Green River Landscape (15.414).
2 Morand, Thomas Moran: The Field Sketches, 36.

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Title(s): 
First Sketch Made in the West at Green River, Wyoming; First sketch made in the West at Green River. Wyoming
Creator(s): 
Thomas Moran (Author)
Culture: 
American
Date: 
1871
Period: 
Hudson River School
Materials/Techniques: 
watercolor, graphite and white gouache on paper
Classification: 
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
02.882
Previous Number(s): 
0236.882; 36301
Department: 
Signed by hand, "TMoran 1871" in lower left on recto; Notes in the artist's hand; Inscribed by hand in pencil, "First sketch made in the West at Green River. Wyoming 1871" on support in top center on recto; Pencil marks on verso.
Not On View

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