The University of Arizona Museum of Art and Archive of Visual Arts

ART/WRITE – Thomas Moran

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Thomas Moran (American, 1837-1926)

Moran, Thomas, The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado, 1875
Museum Purchase with Funds Provided By the Edward J. Gallagher, Jr. Memorial Fund
Chromolithograph, 10″ x 14 1/2″

1. Biography

After his family immigrated to the United States from England in 1844, Thomas Moran took an early interest in art. The work of the British Romantic landscape painter has a dramatic influence on Moran, and he closely studied and copied his works and subjects while visiting London in 1862. Other early influence included the writing of the American poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His epic poem Hiawatha (1855) reportedly influenced Moran to visit upper Michigan so that he could view the natural wonders of the landscape described in Hiawatha.

Moran worked at a time of western exploration which was followed by immediate western expansion. On these expeditions, it was customary for a scene painter and/or a photographer to come along. In 1871, Moran took part of a survey into Yellowstone with the geologist Ferninand V. Hayden. Illustrations from the expedition were published in Scribner’s Monthly, a New York based magazine that reported on news from the western frontier. In 1873, on assignments for Picturesque America, a book that set out to illustrate the scenery of America, Moran accompanied Hayden again on his exploration of the Colorado Rockies, the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon. It is an important factor to note that part of Moran’s funding for these trips was from Jay Cooke of the Northern Pacific Railroad, who was eager to publicize the amazing landscapes of the West.

Moran’s paintings and sketches from these expeditions launched his career as one the premier American landscape painters. They also helped an eastern audience picture the “wild” west as untamed and ready to by civilized. In fact, many of Moran’s images were fictional constructs and not exact replications of what he saw, but rather carefully arranged compositions created to insight a specific emotional response. Ignoring evidence of civilization, such as towns or railroads, Moran concentrated on idyllic mountain ranges and the natural formations that were the backdrop to these man-made features. His paintings were truthful enough for a nineteenth century audience who could read the symbolic evidence of Manifest Destiny.

In reality, by the late 1900’s, the impact of American expansion could already be seen as far west as Montana. While compared to Europe, whose landscape was blighted with evidence of human civilization, a growing number in America fought to preserve the natural and wild places that seemingly defined America. Many of Moran’s favorite sites to paint were declared national parks or monuments, including Yosemite Valley, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone National Park. His mass produced images played a central role in the establishment of these parks, as his epic landscapes advanced a national identity closely linked with the rugged, the untamed, and the divinely allocated.


Anderson, N.K. (1997). Thomas Moran. New Haven, London: Yale University Press.

Goetzmann, W.H. (1981). The west as romantic horizon. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

2. History

The landscape of the west defines the American identity, thanks to the paintings of nineteenth century artists. The landscape paintings from the early part of the century by the Romantic painters like Thomas Cole, George Catlin and Frederick Church were views of the untamed interior nation that laid in wait for civilization. These images helped to maintain the belief in Manifest Destiny, that God had indeed intended Americans (meaning white Europeans) to conquer and inhabit the west. The Indian Wars and The U.S.-Mexican War (1846-1848) would be a violent consequence of this ideology.

When later artists like Thomas Moran went on expeditions further into the American West, to the wilderness landscapes of Yellowstone and the Colorado Rockies, the images brought back to the East in the 1870’s played a central role in advertising the western expansion of America. By the time Moran traveled to Montana on his expeditions into Yellowstone and later Colorado, the transcontinental railroad had made travel to these further most lands possible. Trains from Washington to the west left twice daily. His oil paintings, water colors, and especially his mass produced chromolithographs, advertised to a wide audience the divine earthly gift that was now only a train ride away.

Thomas Moran’s work as a landscape painter coincided with the rise of mass production print making. Moran was able to create detailed, colorful compositions in watercolor while on location, and mass produce the images through a printing process called chromolithography. This affordable and higher quality printing method provided mass-produced prints of artist’s work to a diverse public. Opinions on this development were mixed. Some critics saw the rise of visual media (including photography) as a lowering of taste. While others during Moran’s time saw these types of images as a means to disseminate art, culture and American ideals.

Moran’s packaged and glorified images of the western world constructed a specific historical narrative, one that would set the standard for American landscapes. Made for audiences that accepted the concept of Manifest Destiny, images such as The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado, seem to map out the location of the Garden of Eden and thus the western expansion of the United States.

3. Writing Exercises

Descriptive- Descriptive Walk

Spend a few minutes and look closely at the image, The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Now close your eyes and imagine walking in this scene.

  • What time of year is it?
  • What is the weather like? How do you know? What words describe the weather?
  • Has the land been touched by humans. How?
  • What sounds would there be? How do you know?
  • Who is in the image? Are they alone? What makes you say this?
  • What would it feel like to be in this scene? What direction would you move in? Where do you think you would end up?

Narrative- “I remember”

Write an imagined personal narrative from this image. Imagine this scene as a remembered event in your life. Begin with, “I remember…” and describe the setting and event so that the reader is able to picture it, hear it, smell it or even taste it.

Expository- Context

What does Thomas Moran’s work say about the time in which it was created? What does the image say about the new nation and what in the work communicates that?  How does the image personify America? Are any of these personifications ‘true’ today?

Extension- Compare and contrast Thomas Moran’s landscape to Edward Hopper’s The City.

Expository- Images of Manifest Destiny

Complete a “What I See- What it Means” worksheet in order to analyze the message/s of The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado and the Coffeyville, Kansas broadside. Record the denotations and connotations of each work and then share your findings with the class. Summarize the overall main ideas and meaning of Moran’s image and the broadside citing specific examples to support your conclusions.

Write an essay juxtaposing Moran’s print and the Coffeyville, Kansas broadside.  How does Moran’s message in The Mosquito Trail, Rocky Mountains of Colorado compare with the Coffeyville, Kansas broadside? What does each communicate about the American landscape and how does each work communicate that message? Cite specific evidence from each example.

Coffeyville Kansas broadside credit: Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division (Call # Portfolio 20, Folder 16)