The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, carved out by the Yellowstone River, stretches 1,500 – 4,000 feet wide, and 800 – 1,200 feet deep. After the Yellowstone Caldera, essentially a giant volcano, erupted more than 600,000 years ago, the canyon was formed through lava flow and the increased rate of erosion caused by these flows. The Canyon has captivated visitors for a long as the park has been open, not only because of its striking form, but also because of its reputation as the subject of one of Thomas Moran’s grandest paintings.
Thomas Moran’s Grand Cañon [sic] of the Yellowstone is one of his most recognizable paintings. Moran was a part of the Hayden Geological Survey in 1872. The survey was federally funded, and its purpose was to document the landscape and geological features of the Yellowstone area. This expedition, with Moran’s artwork as a central component, was influential in establishing Yellowstone as the first national park in America.
Thomas Moran’s painting mirrors the grandness of the canyon with its giant canvas size of 7 feet by 12 feet. Peter H. Hassrick writes that, “Some observers, when they saw the large canvas, wondered aloud when the image would move.” This type of enormous painting was a key characteristic of the Rocky Mountain School of artists. The goal of the Rocky Mountain School, patterned after the Hudson River School, was to create art that transported people into the imagined space, that would encourage them to visualize themselves in the depicted location. Admittedly a lofty goal, the artists usually combined different views of the area into one whole creating, an image that one could never witness in real life.
Writing to Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden, leader of the Hayden Geological Survey, Thomas Moran said of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, “I have always held that the Grandest, Most Beautiful, or Wonderful in Nature, would, in capable hands, make the grandest, most beautiful, or wonderful pictures, and that the business of a great painter should be the representation of great scenes in Nature . . . I cast all my claims to being an Artist, into this one picture of the Great Cañon and am willing to abide by the judgment upon it.”