NEW YORK, NY -- Thomas Moran was born in 1837 in Bolton, England, the fifth son of parents from a long line of textile workers. By the time of his birth, the Industrial Revolution had been disrupting the livelihoods of skilled laborers such as his parents for years. The economic violence of Bolton became too much to bear for the Moran’s large family and, after attending a lecture by the American artist George Catlin in the early 1840s, Thomas’s father decided to try his luck in America. He settled his family in Philadelphia and found work in a local textile mill. Thomas’s older brother, Edward, joined the elder Moran at the looms for some time before striking out on his own to pursue a career as an artist. He soon fell in with two artists who were establishing themselves in the city at that time, Paul Weber and James Hamilton.
After finishing grammar school, Thomas Moran began an apprenticeship with a local engraving firm, and though he must have found the industry interesting and enlightening, he cut short the apprenticeship to join his older brother in the pursuit of a career as a painter. Edward was already becoming known as a marine artist and he, Weber, and Hamilton introduced the younger Moran to the ideas of Ruskin, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Turner. In the 1860s the brothers traveled together back to England to see Turner’s works firsthand. This trip and the paintings that they encountered would influence them for the rest of their working lives.
Upon Moran’s return to the States he continued painting the landscape around Philadelphia, refining the ideas he had absorbed from the works of Turner and others. It was during this time that Albert Bierstadt had begun to make a name for himself with his lavish pictures of the American west and in particular scenes of Yosemite. So when, in the early 1870s, he was offered an opportunity to join Dr. Ferdinand Hayden on an expedition to Yellowstone, Moran knew that this was a chance he should not miss. When he arrived in Green River, Wyoming he found a landscape that was quite alien to him, and he recognized the artistic and professional opportunities that it offered.
The landscape in and around Yellowstone was certainly grander than anything he had encountered up until that time, but it was also not the American Garden of Eden that Moran depicted. Green River was a railroad town and western expansion had left its mark. But the paintings that Moran composed when he returned east show none of this. Rather, we are presented with scenes that are peopled with bands of Native Americans in unspoiled landscapes. The rock formations are accurate depictions of the landscape, but the vision of life in it is a fiction.
In the 1880s Moran made his way back to Europe, this time visiting the continent. He was particularly entranced by Venice and its artistic history. He would paint views of Venice for the rest of his life and regularly present Venetian scenes to exhibitions. In fact, The Splendor of Venice was exhibited at New York's The Century Association in 1899.
The view presents Venice with shimmering clarity. The Doge's Palace, the bell tower of St. Marks, the Dogana and the other landmarks of the city are depicted in a careful and realistic manner. The influences of Turner can be seen in the cirrus clouds above the harbor. But as he had done in the Green River pictures, Moran adds a bit of romantic fiction to the scene. The figural group dressed in their finery to the left enjoying an impromptu song are certainly the work of the artist’s imagination. The composition as a whole evokes the city of Venice as it actually existed, but it is also a view of the city steeped in nostalgia and fantasy.
American Paintings, Furniture & Decorative Arts
Auction Wednesday, March 27, 2019 at 10am
Exhibition March 23 - 25
Venice (The Splendor of Venice), 1899
Signed with initials in monogram T Moran and dated 1899
Oil on canvas
20 x 30 1/8 inches.
From the Estate of Joan Harmon Van Metre, The Plains, Virginia