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Spruce Creek / Thomas Moran


“I must know the rocks and the trees and the atmosphere and the mountain torrents . . .”1
—Thomas Moran

An essentially self-trained artist, the young Thomas Moran spent his summers hiking and sketching along the waterways near his family’s home outside Philadelphia. The Schuylkill and Juniata Rivers as well as Wissahickon Creek became familiar haunts that would inspire him throughout his early career. Although he had traveled to Great Britain in 1862, where he sketched castles and palaces, upon returning home Moran continued to hone his skills through the creation of careful studies from nature, such as this one of a Little Juniata tributary, Spruce Creek.2

Moran used faint contour lines to establish the rocky shore, then applied light vertical shading and darker slanted shading to create the illusion of three-dimensionality. The tree trunks are delineated with bold, vertical lines that move our eye upward, and the application of soft, light shading creates the pine needles and foliage. The branches are defined by dark lines that curve downward, leading our eye back to the creek. Both line and shading are employed to depict the water, with areas of paper left exposed to suggest the rocks’ reflection. Spruce Creek is composed of only line and shading, but with each stroke of his pencil Moran came to know the rocks, the trees, and the waters.

Moran was familiar with John Ruskin’s “truth to nature” ideology, articulated in the British critic’s five-volume Modern Painters, published in the United States in 1847.3 Ruskin advised aspiring artists to first depict nature as “the reflection of the place in a mirror” and to consider themselves “only as a sensitive and skillful reflector.” In time, if the artist had “inventive power,” he or she could take the second step, treating the subject “in a totally different way; giving not the actual facts of it, but the impression it made on [the] mind.”4 Nineteenth-century American artists such as Moran, with little access to formal training, took this advice to heart. As he matured as an artist, Moran confidently took the second step by creating landscapes that were not literal transcriptions of nature but rather captured the spirit of the place. First, however, he had to master the facts by sketching directly from nature in works such as Spruce Creek.5

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

1 Moran, “Knowledge a Prime Requisite in Art,” 15.
2 Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 23, 51–52.
3 For a comprehensive discussion of Moran’s engagement with aesthetic theory, see Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, 11–19.
4 Ruskin, Modern Painters, 4:21–22.
5 During the summer of 1864, Moran created a variety of sketches of Spruce Creek as well as the area along the Juniata and Conemaugh Rivers. Anne Morand has noted that if the sites sketched by Moran are mapped, his travels seem random, although he was in fact following the route of the Pennsylvania Central Railroad; see Morand, Thomas Moran: The Field Sketches, 23. James P. Ronda posits that more than a decade later these sketches and Moran’s familiarity with the area laid the foundations for the artist’s first eastern railroad commission with the Pennsylvania Central Railroad; see Ronda, “Thomas Moran and the Eastern Railroads,” 45–47.

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Spruce Creek
Thomas Moran (Artist)
August 21, 1864
Hudson River School
graphite on paper
Landscape: double-sided 0.186- 0.193 mm Machine made, wove, mat surface , beige in color. Drawing executed on the smooth side; verso has slight texture as wire side Horizontal line in paper appears to exist from the making of the sheet.
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
Previous Number(s): 
1326.744; 16393
Not On View

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