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Mountain of the Holy Cross / Thomas Moran

Essay/Description

For nine months of the year, deep snow on the peak of the highest summit in Colorado’s Sawatch Range hides the natural phenomena that led to the edifice’s name: Mount of the Holy Cross. The enormous cross-like shape on the mountain’s northeast face is only visible in late summer, when the first snow fills the two enormous transverse gullies on the peak. The upright gully is fifteen hundred feet in height, and the arms extend outward three hundred and fifty feet on either side.1 Thomas Moran was fortunate to view the glistening white cross during a trip to the Rocky Mountains in 1874, a moment he would portray in this etching and an oil painting, Mountain of the Holy Cross (1875).2

As art historian Joni Kinsey notes, Moran’s depictions of the Mount of the Holy Cross appealed to his predominantly white, Christian audience because of its religious association. In their minds, the naturally occurring phenomenon was a blessing their Christian deity bestowed on the nation. Moran exhibited the oil painting at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, but the federal government thwarted the artist’s desire to display it alongside two of his most famous paintings, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) and The Chasm of the Colorado (1873–74). The United States Congress, which had purchased the two paintings from Moran, would not loan them to the artist for the Centennial Exposition, arguing that they did not want to get in the habit of lending artworks.3

As Kinsey observes, Moran appears to have thought of the three paintings as a group, the Mountain of the Holy Cross completing a western triptych, and he perhaps hoped to sell the artwork to the federal government. The rationale for refusing to lend the other works they had purchased from Moran may have been a convenient excuse to forestall any efforts on the artist’s part to sell them Mountain of the Holy Cross.4

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

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1 Wilkins, Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains, 136.
2 Morand, Thomas Moran: The Field Sketches, 43. The drawings from the 1874 trip are owned by the National Park Service and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum. As Anne Morand observes, in 1873, before seeing the edifice, Moran created an illustration of the Mount of the Holy Cross for Picturesque America, basing his wood engraving on a photograph taken by William Henry Jackson. The handful of drawings Moran made during the 1874 trip bear little resemblance to either the oil painting or this etched work. Thus, according to Morand, Moran may have once again relied on Jackson’s photograph of the Mountain of the Holy Cross to create the 1875 oil painting and 1888 etching, with the additional aid of his memory. The painting Mountain of the Holy Cross (1875) is in the Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, 91.221.49.
3 Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, 141–50. The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, lent by the Department of the Interior Museum, L.1968.84.1. The Chasm of the Colorado (1873–74) is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, lent by Department of the Interior Museum, L.1968.84.2.
4 Kinsey, Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West, 148–53.

Gallery Label

Mountain of the Holy Cross

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Title(s): 
Mountain of the Holy Cross
Creator(s): 
Thomas Moran (Artist)
Culture: 
American
Date: 
1888
Period: 
Hudson River School
Materials/Techniques: 
printing ink on paper
Classification: 
Object Type: 
Accession No: 
14.825
Previous Number(s): 
TL1996.4.1; 14.825a; 1426.825; TL1996.4.1; 35588
Department: 
Signed in plate in ink with colophon, "TMORAN. 1888." in lower right on recto; Signed by hand in pencil, "T.Moran." in lower right on recto; Inscribed in print in ink, "Published by The New Brunswick Royal Art Union Limited" in lower center on recto; Remarque of a young deer in lower left on recto.
Not On View

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