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Mr. Yellowstone Rises Again

ART

Painter Thomas Moran helped set history's course with his Yellowstone works. A new National Gallery retrospective restores his forgotten legacy.

October 12, 1997|Stanley Meisler | Stanley Meisler is a Times staff writer based in Washington

On a return trip to Yellowstone in 1892, he wrote his wife: "I have been made much of at all the places in the park as the great and only 'Moran' the painter of Yellowstone, and I am looked at curiously by all the people at the hotels."

After the turn of the century, Moran would winter almost every year at the Grand Canyon, turning out promotional paintings of the area in exchange for railroad tickets and hotel accommodations. The Sante Fe Railroad became his most important patron and even used a drawing of him sketching the canyon in its advertisements trying to lure tourists to the West.

Yet he could not sell one of his finest landscape paintings, "Shoshone Falls on the Snake River," a 6-by-12-foot Idaho landscape with echoes of Church's famous "Niagara." Tastes had changed in the 20th century, and modern art scorned Western landscapes.

Moran railed in vain at the new fashion: "I have no patience with any of the modern fads in painting," he said in 1916. "Most of them have been deliberate frauds, attempts in the hands of unprincipled men to fool people who never think for themselves."

In 1915, he began to winter in California, first in Pasadena and then in Santa Barbara, finally settling year-round in California in the early 1920s. He died in Santa Barbara in 1926 at age 89.

The posthumous fortunes of Moran are reflected in the fate of the two giant canvases once owned by Congress. They were removed from Statuary Hall a few years after their purchase and displayed for seven decades on the walls near the Senate Gallery in the Capitol.

In 1950, when the Capitol was remodeled, wall space diminished, and Congress decided it no longer had room for Moran's canvases, the first it had ever bought. The paintings were turned over to the Department of the Interior, which runs the National Park Service.

But Interior, which has a small, little-known museum, could find space for the large canvases only in two conference rooms. The paintings were seen by few outsiders.

The department lent the paintings more or less permanently to the new Smithsonian National Museum of American Art in the mid-1960s. They were displayed with great care and prominence there. But the museum is not one of the most frequented in Washington. These landscapes of Moran are finally getting the grand attention they deserve with the current show.

* "Thomas Moran," National Gallery of Art, 4th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., Washington. Ends Jan. 11. (202) 737-4215.

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