Thomas Moran | American Western Art

“Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone” explores the American West and Chromolithography

Chelsea DeLay | October 10th, 2013 | Posted in Events and Exhibitions

Art exhibitions are a valuable method of education that offer unique social commentaries on a range of subjects—they are multi-faceted presentations that explore historical events, cultural themes, and personal creative processes. Currently on view at the Denver Art Museum, Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone: A Project for the Nation is an exhibition of fifteen chromolithographs by the artist, in addition to several of his watercolors, drawings, and paintings. While the Western scenes displayed in Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone are based on sketches and watercolors painted by Moran between 1874 and 1875, the actual prints—which demonstrate a mesmerizing perspective of depth and vibrant coloring—were first produced and published in 1876 by the Boston lithographic firm L. Prang & Co. In the printmaking world, Louis Prang was revered as preeminent American printmakers; he created prints for several famous 19th-century American landscape painters, including Thomas Hill, Alfred Thompson Bricher, and Hudson River School artist Jasper Francis Cropsey. The same fifteen chromolithographs now on view at the Denver Art Museum were also among the prints published in Moran’s portfolio entitled The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, which is recognized as the first color-illustrated publication about the American West!

Co-curated by Thomas Smith, director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum, and Toby Jurovics, chief curator of the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska, Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone showcases not only the natural magnificence of the Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding mountain ranges, but also encourages a curiosity regarding chromolithography. When news of this exhibition recently caught my eye, I was immediately intrigued; while I am very well-acquainted with Thomas Moran’s work as a Hudson River School painter, chromolithography is not a familiar medium. What began as a simple internet search on what I thought would be assumed was a basic process drew me into a fascinating vortex of lithographic history, and it took many instructional YouTube videos for me to even begin to understand the complexities involved in producing a multi-colored print.

Chromolithographs, commonly known as color prints, are created through a series of intricate and precise steps that require the patience of a saint—or in this case, the master printmaker Prang. To begin, a mirrored image of what will become the final print is first drawn onto a slab of limestone with a grease-based medium, followed by an application of water over the entire slab, which soaks in everywhere except where the image was sketched. The face of the stone is then washed with one specific color of ink that clings to the initial sketch, and by pressing paper against the slab, the colored image is transferred. Some of the prints on display in Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone incorporate up to fifty-six different colors, meaning that a finished print had to be precisely placed on fifty-six different limestone slabs in order to layer the ink in such a way that effectively re-created the shadows and tones in Moran’s original painting. The results of this impressive feat are absolutely stunning—the sheer amount of detail incorporated into these chromolithographs makes them appear more as painting than a print.

I have no doubt that audiences viewing this exhibition will recognize Moran’s dramatic vistas as indisputable evidence supporting his reputation as one of America’s most respected landscape painters. These chromolithographs from Moran’s 1876 portfolio had a profund impact on shaping the national perception of the American West during the nineteenth century. On view through January 19, 2014, Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone: A Project for the Nation is a multifaceted display of American art: visitors will be able to explore the natural beauty of our national terrain through a series of ground-breaking prints, while simultaneously learning about the artistry of a craft that predated Polaroids and digital images.

Thomas Moran, The Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin from The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, 1876. Chromolithograph on paper. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Gift of Gail and Michael Yanney and Lisa and Bill Roskens.

Thomas Moran, The Castle Geyser, Upper Geyser Basin from The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, 1876. Chromolithograph on paper. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Gift of Gail and Michael Yanney and Lisa and Bill Roskens.

Thomas Moran, The Great Blue Spring of The Lower Geyser Basin from The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, 1876. Chromolithograph on paper. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Gift of Gail and Michael Yanney and Lisa and Bill Roskens.

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Thomas Moran, The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado from The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, 1876. Chromolithograph on paper. Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Nebraska, Gift of Gail and Michael Yanney and Lisa and Bill Roskens.

Chelsea DeLay is a Researcher at Questroyal Fine Art. Chelsea earned her MA in art business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art in New York, and her BA in art history and classical studies. Her interest in American paintings first began while working at an auction house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and has multiplied exponentially since joining the Questroyal team.