Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 12, 2015
Joni L. Kinsey Thomas Moran’s West: Chromolithography, High Art, and Popular Taste Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006. 271 pp.; 55 color ills.; 112 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780700614134)
Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone: A Project for the Nation
Exhibition schedule: Gilcrease Museum, Tulsa, June 8–September 8, 2013 (under the title Yellowstone and the West: The Chromolithographs of Thomas Moran); Denver Art Museum, Denver, October 6, 2013–January 19, 2014; Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha, June 7–September 7, 2014 (under the title Yellowstone and the West: The Chromolithographs of Thomas Moran)
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Thomas Moran. The Mountain of the Holy Cross (1894). Watercolor on paper. Denver Art Museum. Anonymous gift. 1981.16.

A museum exhibition on nineteenth-century chromolithography and the landscape of the American West must negotiate its way through key challenges. When the discipline of art history routinely emphasizes the innovation and novelty of artistic developments, imagery of mountains and natural wonders can strike scholars and museumgoers as familiar territory and therefore unworthy of attention. Moreover, in an era that celebrates globalization, the western landscape might bear a whiff of provincialism, complicated by questions about how the United States, under the spell of Manifest Destiny, invested the terrain with now unfashionable cultural meanings. In these circumstances, prints risk becoming mere images of history rather than objects of artistic interest. Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone, curated by Toby Jurovics, chief curator of the Joslyn Art Museum, and Thomas Smith, director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum, meets these challenges as a tightly focused, single-room exhibition on how an artist harnessed technological advancements to visualize the American West.

Jurovics and Smith accomplish this objective in part by focusing on chromolithography at its peak. The medium no longer commands attention, having ceded to other technologies its preeminence in mass-produced color imagery. Yet its ambitious powers of illustration come forth in this exhibition of thirty-four works of different media. With one exception from 1868 and two from the 1890s, all items date from 1871 to 1876. This selection allows the curators to explore notions of artistic quality as a factor in American knowledge and appreciation of western landscapes.

To guide viewing the artworks, the curators placed three brief panels of wall text throughout the gallery at the Denver Art Museum. A description of the life and work of the English-born Thomas Moran (1837–1926) noted his introduction to Yellowstone and participation in a geological survey in 1871, which informed his renowned painting, The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone (1872), acquired by Congress after the establishment of the national park that year. Additional journeys and projects with the American West led Moran to collaborate with a lithographic firm in Boston, L. Prang & Co., on The Yellowstone National Park, and the Mountain Regions of Portions of Idaho, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, described in the second panel. This portfolio, released in 1876 as a limited edition of one thousand copies, became the first publication with color illustrations about the region. It was usually sold as a boxed set of mounted prints with additional pages of text and maps, yet some copies were bound. The fifteen chromolithographs in this portfolio, executed by Louis Prang after watercolors by Moran, are the stars of this exhibition. Finally, the most detailed panel of wall text illustrated the process of making a chromolithograph, noting that Prang sometimes used more than fifty stones, each with only one color of ink, in order to impart a chromatic range to a sheet of paper. The sparse wall text throughout the exhibition encouraged, above all, visual contemplation.

Visitors to the gallery approached a central, freestanding display case that presented the portfolio from 1876. The hefty tome appears as a weighty landmark in American history, as if Moran, when ascending the mountains of Yellowstone empty-handed in order to return with a gift upon the centenary of the nation, had emulated the journey of Moses up Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. The august brown portfolio case, bearing “The Yellowstone National Park” in golden letters on the front, denotes the singular beauty of the material within. Moreover, the placement of the mounted images from the portfolio on the surrounding walls of the gallery established that they revolved around this publication in the middle of the venue. These dazzling chromolithographs of Yellowstone and the American West were to be viewed collectively.

To highlight the distinctive character of The Yellowstone National Park by Moran and Prang, the curators introduced comparative material on a less central freestanding display case, namely the Photographs of the Yellowstone National Park album of 1873 by William Henry Jackson. The photographer had demonstrated great prowess in capturing the rugged terrain in albumen prints. The indexical nature of the medium also assured its veracity, thereby imparting credibility to what easterners otherwise had received in handmade depictions or verbal descriptions of the fantastic landscape. In the quest to highlight the marvels of the American West, these volumes by Moran and Jackson descend from European traditions of employing the visual arts to document the wonders of nature. Both tomes therefore reinforced each other not only in their artistry but also their virtually scientific documentation of geological features and natural resources.

Despite the symbiotic relationship, the individual images on the gallery walls show that chromolithography then had undeniable advantages over black-and-white photography of the day. For instance, Jurovics and Smith juxtaposed two albumen prints by Jackson and one chromolithograph designed by Moran of Mammoth Hot Springs on Gardiner’s River at Yellowstone. The artists had visited the site together in 1871, thereby helping to promote the fame of its natural terraces and geothermal wonders. Although Jackson faithfully captured the strange forms in his monochromatic photographs, Moran unleashed a range of pinks, oranges, yellows, greens, blues, and purples across the frosting-white sedimentary landscape. Vibrant colors impart greater immediacy to an image than is possible with a muted spectrum of grays. By assembling these images in the Denver Art Museum, the curators invited visitors to reach their own conclusions about the respective merits of the different media while appreciating the likely impact on nineteenth-century Americans.

The didactic powers of comparison also drove the juxtaposition of the chromolithographs by Prang with selected examples of preparatory watercolors by Moran. For instance, by placing the published Great Salt Lake of Utah (1876) print aside its respective watercolor, the curators highlighted the difficulty of distinguishing the mass-produced copy from the handcrafted original. This method of exhibition emulated an approach Prang took in his showroom, where he sometimes challenged viewers to distinguish a painting from the corresponding chromolithograph. Visitors to the Denver Art Museum could of course consult the wall text for clarification, yet they surely followed nineteenth-century viewers in astonishment at the sheer range of colors that Prang had infused into his prints. Prang’s expertise had drawn admiration from Moran, whose words were printed high across a gallery wall in Denver: “The faithfulness with which you have reproduced my water color drawings is beyond praise. It seems to me that Chromo-Lithography has, in your hands, attained perfection.” Although one might regard this judgment as flattery among business partners, the unparalleled quality of the artworks themselves elevates the panegyric above mere rhetoric.

The curators thereby affirm that the height of American chromolithography came when celebrating the western landscape. The exhibition reinforced this point by showing visitors the artistic and geological variety represented in the portfolio of 1876. Although the aforementioned print of Mammoth Hot Springs employs a horizontal format to emphasize the succession of terraces, Moran enlisted the vertical orientation to reinforce the soaring mountains in Summit of the Sierras, Nevada. By encompassing earth and water, a cascade and a geyser, calm surfaces and jagged contours, dense forests and barren rocks, snowy peaks and dry land, this group of fifteen illustrations challenged the artists and has delighted viewers since their publication. The difficulty extends to depictions of evanescent phenomena, such as the rainbow in Yellowstone Lake, the steam in The Great Blue Spring of the Lower Geyser Basin, and the sunlight and clouds in variable atmospheric conditions throughout this ensemble. If Prang revealed his mimetic powers when creating chromolithographs from watercolors, then Moran had demonstrated his excellence at capturing the contrasts and variety of the scenery.

These and other themes arise in the accompanying publication, Thomas Moran’s West: Chromolithography, High Art, and Popular Taste, by Joni L. Kinsey. Released in 2006 and reprinted on the occasion of the show, this beautifully illustrated volume guided the curatorial approach to the art. The book lacks individual object entries and does not adhere to the parameters of the exhibition catalogue. It provides, however, a wealth of detail about Moran and Prang, the commercial nature of the portfolio, the artistic techniques, visual traditions of the American West, and the critical discourse that arose to describe reproductions of art. It is engaging to read how Kinsey situates the chromolithographs within the spectrum of graphic media available to nineteenth-century Americans. Moreover, her account of a fire in September 1877 sheds further light on the curators’ choices of objects to include in this exhibition. Most of the one thousand copies of this costly portfolio perished in the blaze, thereby rendering the surviving examples exceptionally rare. Viewing this ensemble of chromolithographs, then, is likely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Without doubt, the curators formulated a compelling exhibition on chromolithography and the American West, yet it would have disappointed critics seeking strongly historicized readings through the lens of the problematic past of the United States. The wall text for one print, The Mountain of the Holy Cross, Colorado (1876), remarked that a snowfield evocative of the Christian sign of salvation had encouraged visions of Manifest Destiny. Left unstated in the gallery, however, was the question of who was living on the land before the arrival of the white creators and consumers of this imagery. By sidestepping this matter, the show risked disapproval of the sort offered by Ken Johnson in his review of “The American West in Bronze, 1850–1925” organized by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in collaboration with the Denver Art Museum. The New York Times critic published an unusually truculent review (December 20, 2013) on the ostensible grounds that the exhibition had belittled “a real-world history of appalling violence and evil” behind the bronze figures of Native Americans, mountain men, and cowboys. With these words, Johnson astutely observed that the bronze exhibition did not have the primary aim of condemning crimes against humanity; however, his judgment adhered to the commonplace in which easterners conveniently overlook historical atrocities in their own region and readily deliver devastating if facile judgments about developments in the American West.

The Denver Art Museum offered visitors to Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone a critical alternative in a group show, Sovereign: Independent Voices in the museum’s Mike and Suzy Leprino Gallery (September 15, 2013–August 16, 2015). Here Kent Monkman, a contemporary Canadian artist of Cree ancestry, has two paintings with which he demonstrates mimetic powers rivaling those of Prang. In The Fourth World (2012) and History Is Painted by the Victors (2013), Monkman appropriates landscapes by the German-born contemporary of Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and transforms the canonical imagery to great effect. In doing so, he cogently asserts that the seizure of land remains a matter of contention and, for many First Nation peoples, a source of traumatic memories inherited from recent ancestors. Monkman has established himself as an authority on the artistic traditions implicated in European-American conquests, and his paintings, sculptures, and installations have drawn attention to the weight of these images.

Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone achieved considerable mileage within its sole gallery. The show explored how artists had tackled the problems of creating a technically challenging group of artworks. Coming to terms with these chromolithographs assures their ongoing currency and enables further responses to the historical circumstances from which they emerged. As demonstrated at the Denver Art Museum, curators like Jurovics and Smith retain the capacity to shape the discourse around this type of imagery. Moreover, just as artists had exerted a powerful force over the American imagination in the nineteenth century, the work of Monkman demonstrates that they will surely continue to guide cultural readings of landscapes in the twenty-first.

Jeffrey Schrader
Associate Professor, Department of Visual Arts, University of Colorado Denver

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.