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Print A: The Resounding Sea / Thomas Moran


“Rarely do we think of paper as anything other than a material of pure utility, a marvel of happenstance that functions best when attracting no attention whatsoever to itself.”1 —Nicholas A. Basbanes, On Paper: The Everything of Its Two-Thousand-Year History, 2013

So perfect is Thomas Moran’s depiction of the roiling sea as it crashes against the shore that British critic John Ruskin (1819–1900) allegedly exclaimed that the artist's created “the finest drawing of water in motion that has come out of America!”2 This etched work was a preliminary study for the oil painting The Much Resounding Sea (1884, National Gallery of Art, 1967.9.1). Although Moran's depiction of wave motion was reportedly lauded by Ruskin and the inspiration for further artworks, the mat burn (darkening of the paper around the print) and foxing (the dappled reddish-brown spotting scattered across the sheet) that have developed over time can distract viewers today.

After this etching was matted and framed for display, exposure to either sunlight or artificial light caused mat burn, or discoloration of the paper. During the late nineteenth century, wood-pulp paper was popular in the United States; however, prolonged exposure to light reacted with the paper’s natural acidity, causing darkening or yellowing. Eventually, buffering agents added to the wood pulp countered this acidity.3 Foxing can result from several factors that may have more to do with paper quality than light exposure. Humidity appears to play a role, as it can lead to the growth of a type of mold that creates ferrous oxide (iron deposits), causing the reddish-brown color. Ironically, the mold may also result from the process of combining wood pulp with cotton or linen fibers, which was thought to produce a higher quality of machine-made paper—the kind an artist would prefer.4

Before the late nineteenth century, linen or cotton was used to make paper in the United States. After the Civil War, the number of wood-pulp mills increased to address the greater demand for machine-made paper by newspapers and periodicals. Wood pulp was cheap but it did not hold together well, and manufacturers added linen or cotton (in the form of rags) as a binding agent. The more linen and cotton, the more durable the paper, and it was considered to be of higher quality.5

All-rag paper was the most popular type with artists but had to be imported from Europe. For many nineteenth-century American artists the cost could be prohibitive, so a good-quality machine-made paper with a higher ratio of rag to wood pulp became an acceptable alternative.6 To make the paper pulp, a fermentation process was used to break down the rags, and that process was not complete until mold appeared. Manufacturers must thoroughly rinse the rag pulp with water, but to meet the demand for high-quality paper, they may have taken shortcuts with the last step of the process. Mold spores remained on the fibers and, over time, foxing developed. Although unsightly, foxing does not damage the paper or the ink used in fine art prints such as this one. Applying sodium borohydride or hydrogen peroxide can be a cosmetic solution and brighten the work, but it can also damage the paper or the ink.7 Conservators in the twenty-first century face challenging decisions when treating historical works on paper, and they advocate for preventive measures to avoid further problems. Strategies such as limiting exposure to light to prevent further discoloration, maintaining a temperature-controlled environment to deter foxing, and limiting the handling of the objects can help ensure the stability of works on paper for years to come.

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

1 Basbanes, On Paper, 298.
2 Quoted in Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 228, 364n26, and quoted in Anderson et al., Thomas Moran, 121, 370n10. According to Moran, Ruskin made this declaration, but we have no other source for it. Moran was fond of repeating the statement in interviews and, if Ruskin was aware, he never objected. Various versions of it appeared in a number of publications in the late 1880s including The Morning Press (Santa Barbara, CA) and the Bolton Weekly Guardian (United Kingdom). The quote according to the New York Herald, which is reproduced in Anderson’s catalogue, says Ruskin enthused that “the wave breaking on the shore,” was “the finest piece of water drawing he had ever seen by any man.”
3 Basbanes, On Paper, 91.
4 Hunter, Papermaking, 154.
5 Basbanes, On Paper, 90–92. See also Hunter, Papermaking, 393–94.
6 Basbanes, On Paper, 311–12, 327.
7 Hunter, Papermaking, 154–55. Bleaching techniques for whitening any kind of paper pulp improved by the beginning of the twentieth century and seemingly solved the dual problems of paper discoloration and foxing. New binding agents were also employed to improve the durability of wood-pulp paper.

Curatorial Remarks

Etching, early state. Sandra Pauly, Henry Luce Foundation Curatorial Scholar for Moran Collection Research 3.17.22

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Print A: The Resounding Sea
Thomas Moran (Artist)
Hudson River School
printing ink on paper
Landscape; single-sided 0.200- 0.201 mm Dark cream, laid, machine-made paper. Chain lines are horizontal in transmitted light
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
Previous Number(s): 
1426.419A; 35184
Not On View

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