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Hiawatha and the Serpents / Thomas Moran

Essay/Description

And Nokomis, the old woman,
Pointing with her finger westward,
Spake these words to Hiawatha:
“Yonder dwells the great Pearl-Feather,
Megissogwon, the Magician,
Manito of Wealth and Wampum,
Guarded by his fiery serpents,
Guarded by the black pitch-water.
You can see his fiery serpents,
The Kenabeek, the great serpents,
Coiling, playing in the water;
You can see the black pitch-water
Stretching far away beyond them,
To the purple clouds of sunset!”1

—Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Song of Hiawatha

Canto IX of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Song of Hiawatha was the inspiration for this ink wash by Thomas Moran. This section of the poem recounts Nokomis’s appeal to her grandson, Hiawatha, to avenge the death of her father by killing Pearl-Feather, the bringer of disease and death. But first the hero must cross the “black pitch-water” and battle the fearsome Kenabeek.2 Moran portrayed this scene in a variety of mediums, including oil paintings such as the Gilcrease’s Hiawatha and the Great Sea Serpent (01.1115).3

This ink wash is part of a set that Moran prepared in 1875 for an illustrated edition of The Song of Hiawatha.4 The artist worked in collaboration with his brother Peter Moran (1841–1914) on the project, with Peter creating steel engravings after Thomas’s preparatory images.5 Although they did not complete the venture, Moran used the washes as the basis for other illustration work, including the wood engraving The Song of Hiawatha (15.411), published in the 1879 anthology The Poetical Works of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.6

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

_____________________________
1 Longfellow, Song of Hiawatha, canto IX, 53.
2 Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 70–71. I am using Wilkins’s synopsis of canto IX.
3 Moran created two other oil paintings depicting scenes from canto IX: Hiawatha and the Great Serpent, the Kenabeek (1867, Baltimore Museum of Art, 1967.17) and “Fiercely the red sun descending/Burned his way along the heavens” (1875–76, North Carolina Museum of Art, 52.9.34).
4 Moran’s sketches from an 1860 trip to Lake Superior’s Pictured Rocks (13.754, 13.758, 13.762, 13.765), the setting for Longfellow’s Hiawatha, were the pictorial inspiration for the set of ink washes (02.902, 02.903, 02.904, 02.905, 02.906, 02.907, 02.908, 02.909, 02.910, 02.911, 02.912, 02.913, 02.914, 02.915, 02.916, 02.917, 02.932) and the wood engraving Pictured Rocks of Lake Superior (15.399), published in The Aldine in January 1873.
5 Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 72.
6 Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 72; Kinsey, “Moran and the Art of Publishing,” 305 in Anderson, et al, Thomas Moran. Scholars cannot verify why the brothers did not complete the project.

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Title(s): 
Hiawatha and the Serpents
Creator(s): 
Thomas Moran (Artist)
Culture: 
American
Date: 
1875
Period: 
Hudson River School
Materials/Techniques: 
graphite and wash on paper
Classification: 
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
02.908
Previous Number(s): 
0226.908; 17173
Department: 
Signed by hand in ink with colophon, "TM. 1875" in lower right on recto; Inscribed on mat, " No. 7 Hiawatha & the Serpents" and "Lying coiled across the passage. Seized his arrows, Jasper headed shot them fast among the serpents".
Not On View

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