Portrait of the times

June 05, 2005|by JULIE E. GREENE

The further you get in Thomas Moran's diary of the Hayden expedition through what would become Yellowstone National Park, the less he writes about what he is seeing as it is apparent he is busy sketching the views.

Those sketches and the watercolor paintings they became were descriptive enough - helping to lead to Yellowstone becoming the first national park in the United States on March 1, 1872.

Eight of those watercolors are on display as part of "The Moran Family of Artists" exhibit through Sunday, Aug. 28, at Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in Hagerstown's City Park.


The Morans are one of two of the most famous American painting families, the other being the Peales, said Amy L. Hunt, museum curator.

A new start

Thomas Moran Sr. and his wife, Mary, immigrated to Baltimore from England in 1843 because hand weaving, their trade, was becoming obsolete in England due to steam-powered weaving, Hunt said. Unimpressed with the Baltimore school system, they moved to the Philadelphia area.

Edward, their eldest son, began training to become a weaver like his father. The owner of the factory where he worked saw some of Edward's sketches and suggested he study with James Hamilton, a prominent marine painter.

Edward became a respected marine painter and is credited with getting his younger brothers - John, Thomas and Peter - involved with art, Hunt said.

Peter liked to paint animals and John became a photographer.

In addition to works of the four brothers, the exhibit includes pieces by four other family members, Hunt said.

"In many cases their wives were artists, and in many cases their children became artists," Hunt said.

The museum has 11 Moran pieces in its collection, including Thomas Moran's "Lower Manhattan from Communipaw, N.J." The large oil on canvas is one of the museum's most popular works and was loaned to the Smithsonian National Gallery of Art in 1994, Hunt said.

The remainder of the 64 works on display came from a variety of private collectors and museums, including Juniata College Museum of Art and Yellowstone National Park.

Painting Yellowstone

In 1871, Ferdinand Hayden led an expedition into the future Yellowstone National Park in an effort to document the wonders of the area and persuade Congress to make the area a national park, said Colleen Curry, supervisory museum curator of the park in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho.

Thomas Moran jumped on the bandwagon to go on the expedition, which included photographer William Henry Jackson, Curry said.

Few people had seen the area at that time. Those who had been there included fur trappers prone to telling tall tales, so when people heard of boiling water coming out of the earth, they had trouble believing the tales, Curry said.

While there were earlier expeditions through the area, Hayden's was sanctioned by the government, she said.

Moran left the expedition when his rations were reduced to biscuits, and went home to translate his sketches into the finished watercolors, Hunt said.

The black-and-white photographs Jackson took and the color of the watercolors Moran painted brought images of the West's wonders to the East Coast, circulating the halls of Congress and contributing to the creation of the park, Hunt said.

The watercolors look small, as if they came out of a sketchbook, Hunt said. The notes Moran sketched to identify features and colors he would later paint in are visible through the watercolor.

Until recent years, the Moran watercolors of Yellowstone rarely left the park, Curry said. They are believed to have stopped being displayed at the park in the mid-1990s because of the damage light can cause to watercolors.

Copies of the paintings are on display in the park's visitors center, but the originals were kept in storage, Curry said.

"They don't travel so frequently from the park. That's one of the things that makes these so special," Hunt said.

More about the Morans

A transcript of Thomas Moran's diary, as well as the history of Yellowstone National Park, is online at

If you go ...

WHAT: "The Moran Family of Artists"

WHEN: Through Sunday, Aug. 28. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday; and 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Bowman and Kerstein Galleries in Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, City Park, Hagerstown

COST: Free; donations accepted

CONTACT: For more information, call the museum at 301-739-5727 or visit on the Web.

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