Thomas Moran

Artist Biography

Hudson River School painter famous for landscapes of the American West

By Alexandra A. Jopp

A master of composition and inspired by J.W.M Turner and Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Thomas Moran became known for monumental romantic landscapes of the American West and his efforts in establishing the first national park at Yellowstone.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

Thomas Moran was one of the best-known and most influential painters of the Hudson River School working in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. His iconic watercolors and oil paintings of the American West not only made him one of the country’s preeminent landscape artists, but also helped to convince members of Congress to establish the United States’ first national park at Yellowstone in 1872. While he was best known for these works, his subjects also included literary, marine, European and Mexican themes, among others.

Moran was born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, on February 12, 1837. His father, also named Thomas, was a master weaver who worked long hours in the Lancashire textile mills. Dreaming of a better life for his two sons, Thomas and Edward, he saved enough money to bring his family to America in 1844. They settled in a part of Philadelphia known as Kensington.

Moran was educated in the Philadelphia public schools and showed an early inclination toward art. As a youth, he worked as a wood engraver but soon, inspired by his older brother, Edward, an internationally-known marine painter, he began to study art. Edward taught a teenage Thomas the techniques of drawing and painting. Later, Thomas was encouraged and tutored by James Hamilton (1819-78) and other local artists. At the age of 18, Thomas started working more in watercolors, and three years later, he was painting full-time in Edward’s studio. His first solo exhibition of watercolors was held at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1856. Living in Pennsylvania gave Moran the opportunity to see landscape exhibits by American and British artists at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts; however, there was little opportunity for formal artistic training in the United States.

In the 1850s, many young artists seeking new approaches to landscapes were influenced by the philosophies of the Hudson River School, an important movement in American art with roots in Romanticism. Moran was one such artist, making trips into the country outside of Philadelphia to paint rural scenes. He followed the standard seasonal landscape artist’s schedule, sketching outdoors during the summer and working in the studio in the winter.

In 1861, Thomas and Edward Moran sojourned to London to study the works of J.M.W. Turner, whose atmospheric and luminous effects greatly inspired Thomas.. As a student at London’s Royal Academy, Thomas was enchanted by the works of Turner; his admiration of the Romantic artist’s colors and landscapes would later be manifested in his own works and earn him the title “The American Turner.”

After returning from Europe in 1862, Moran married Mary Nimmo, and the couple moved to Newark, N.J., where they had three children. With his wife, who became an accomplished etcher, Moran played a leading role in popularizing printmaking during the etching revival that peaked in the 1880s.

In 1866, Moran went to Europe again. During a year abroad, he mainly lived in Paris, where he met Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875), but also visited Italy, where he studied the works of the great masters. In the spring of 1867, Thomas exhibited his first major work, Children of the Mountain (1867), in the Exposition Universelle in Paris.

Moran’s introduction to the American West came in the early 1870s when he traveled to Yellowstone, Wyo., with the United States Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories, which was headed by Ferdinand Hayden. In 1873, Moran’s visited the Grand Canyon with John Powell’s government survey, and in 1874, he went with Hayden to see the Mountain of Holy Cross in Eagle County, Colo. These trips formed the foundation for much of the rest of Moran’s career. He produced three major oil paintings that were inspired by his experiences with the surveys: The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872), Chasm of the Colorado (1873-1874) and the Mountain of the Holy Cross (1875).

Aside from the dramatic mountain ranges of Wyoming and Colorado, the pastoral landscape of Long Island was a frequent subject of Moran’s. He first visited the East End in 1878 on a sketching trip hosted by the Tile Club and was “enchanted by the village [of East Hampton] and the surrounding countryside.” The artist built a studio in East Hampton in 1884, and it became his permanent summer home (as the first studio established in East Hampton, Moran helped create an artist’s colony there). The Moran family is buried in the South End Cemetery in East Hampton and today, the Thomas & Mary Nimmo Moran Studio is a National Historic Landmark.

Although he painted many other subjects, including panoramic images from Europe, Mexico and Long Island, Moran’s depictions of the western United States remain his best-known works and his most important contribution to American art. Robert Allerton Parker wrote that Moran’s “expression has passed into our very culture. Perhaps more than any other American painter of the latter half of the nineteenth century, Thomas Moran compelled the American people to appreciate the beauty of its own continent, to look upon its wonders through his eyes, and to save these resources of natural beauty.”1

II. Chronology

1837 Born in Bolton, Lancashire, England, on February 12.
1844 Moved with his family to the United States, settling in Kensington, Penn.
1853 Apprenticed to a wood engraver and illustrator in Philadelphia
1856 Created his first oil painting, Among the Ruins There He Lingered
1861 Went to London and studied at the Royal Academy
1862 Returned to America and married to Mary Nimmo (1842–1899)
1866 Returned to Europe to study works by European masters; met Corot
1867 Exhibited Children of the Mountain at the Exposition Universelle in Paris
1871 Traveled to Yellowstone for the first time
1872 Watercolors produced after the 1871 expedition influenced Congress to
establish Yellowstone as America’s first national park
1872 Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone completed and purchased by the Congress for
1872 Toured Yosemite Valley in California
1873 Explored the mountains of Utah to the north rim of the Grand Canyon of
the Colorado River
1875 Completed the third of his monumental western landscape paintings,
Mountain of the Holy Cross.
1880 Produced industrial scene, Lower Manhattan from Communipaw, New Jersey
1882 Returned to Bolton, Lancashire, England
1886 Visited Venice for the first time
1899 Wife, Mary, died of typhoid fever
1900 Returned to Yellowstone with youngest daughter Ruth
1916 Moved to Santa Barbara, Calif.
Died in Santa Barbara on August 25

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover, Mass
Allen Art Museum at Oberlin College, Oberlin, Ohio
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas
Art Institute of Chicago
Berea College, Berea, Ky.
Blanton Museum of Art at the University of Texas, Austin, Texas
Block Museum of Art at Northwestern University, Evanston, Ill.
Bolton Art Gallery, Bolton, Lancashire, England
Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Provo, Utah
Buffalo Bill Historical Center, Cody, Wyo.
Butler Institute of American Art, Youngstown, Ohio
Canton Museum of Art, Canton, Ohio
Chazen Museum of Art, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisc.
Cleveland Museum of Art
Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, New York, N.Y.
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Cummer Museum of Art and Gardens, Jacksonville, Fla.
Dallas Museum of Art
Detroit Institute of Arts
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art, University of Oklahoma, Norman, Okla.
Frick Art and Historical Center, Pittsburgh
Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, Okla.
Harvard University Art Museums, Cambridge, Mass.
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Jersey City Museum, Jersey City, N.J.
Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, Neb.
Juniata College Museum of Art, Huntington, Penn.
Maier Museum of Art at Randolph College, Lynchburg, Va.
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y.
Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, N.J.
Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Museum of Western Art, Denver
National Park Service
National Archives, Washington, D.C.
National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Mo.
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, N.C.
Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Oklahoma City, Okla.
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philbrook Museum of Art, Tulsa, Okla.
Portland Art Museum, Portland, Ore.
Rockwell Museum of Western Art, Corning, N.Y.
San Diego Museum of Art
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Smithsonian Institution Art Inventories
Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kan.
Stark Museum of Art, Orange, Texas
Terra Foundation for American Art, Chicago
The Parthenon, Nashville, Tenn.
The White House, Washington, D.C.
University of Virginia Art Museum, Charlottesville, Va.
Union Pacific Museum Collection, Omaha, Neb.
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, Greensburg, Penn.

IV. Exhibitions

1856 Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1856
1857-1922 National Academy of Design
1862 Brooklyn AA
1867 Exposition Universelle, Paris
1876 Centennial Exposition, Philadelphia
1878-85 Brooklyn AA
1879-81 Boston AC
1880 New York Etching Club
1898-1904 Art Institute of Chicago
1901 PAN-AM., EXPO, Buffalo
1902 American Art Society, Philadelphia
1984 Parrish AM ("PAINTER -ETCHERS" EXH.)
1997- 98 National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
1998 Seattle Art Museum

V. Memberships

Art Club of Philadelphia
American Art Society, Philadelphia
American Watercolor Society
Artists Fund Society, New York City
Century Association
Lotos Club
National Academy of Design
Pennsylvania Academy of Arts

VI. Notes

Robert Allerton Parker, “The Water-Colors of Thomas Moran,” in Thomas Moran: Explorer in Search of Beauty, ed. Fritiof Fryxell, (East Hampton, N.Y.: East Hampton Free Library, 1958), pp. 82–83.


VII. Suggested Resources

Kinsey, Joni Louise. Thomas Moran and the Surveying of the American West. Washington, D.C., and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Kinsey, Joni L. Thomas Moran’s West: Chromolithography, High Art, and Popular Taste. Lawrence, Kan.: University Press of Kansas, 2006.

Morand, Anne. Thomas Moran: The Field Sketches, 1856-1923. Norman, Okla., and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1996.

Wilkins, Thurman. Thomas Moran: Artist of the Mountains. Norman, Okla.: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Read Less

Contact Us About This Artist

    This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

      Go To Top