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Thursday, July 16, 2015

Day 39: Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (7/13/15)

I got a late start this morning as I wrote several blog posts before I got going. It wasn't until about 1:00pm that I set out on the South Rim Trail with my paint pack. Even when I got on the trail I wasn't sure what I was going to do. Originally I'd wanted to paint an 11x14 canvas of the Grand Canyon (an ambitious size for me to plein air) thinking I'd come back over two or even three days to finish it. After visiting Artist Point yesterday, I knew I couldn't paint there. Even if I got there at 7:00am I'd only have maybe two hours before it got crowded. And let's be honest I didn't want to get up at 6:00am and drive to the canyon. A canyon ranger had told me that there were good views of the falls and canyon along the South Rim Trail, and at Point Sublime, on either sides of Artist Point. I scouted out the trail to Point Sublime yesterday and there were amazing views of the canyon...but I was holding out for a view with the waterfall in the distance somewhere. Anyway, I decided I'd do two 8x10 paintings of the canyon on either side of Artist Point, and I can always combine the two together in a larger painting at home if I want to.

I did some reading specifically about Moran's painting The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone and wanted to share a quote from a letter he wrote to Hayden:

I have always held, that the grandest, most beautiful, or wonderful in nature would, in capable hands, make the grandest and most beautiful or wonderful pictures; and that the business of a great painter should be the representation of great scenes in nature...if I fail to prove this, I fail to prove myself worthy of the name of painter. I cast all my claims to being an artist, into this one picture of the Great Canyon...

He knew this would be his breakthrough painting as an artist, and it absolutely was. At age 35 this painting defined and launched his career as an artist, and more specifically as the artist of Yellowstone. He also asked Hayden to come by and critique the painting, as he had extensive knowledge of nature and and Yellowstone area from the expedition. Painting today felt somewhat like Moran's quote: very challenging, but something I knew I could not shy away from.

Another quote that came to mind was one from Moran's daughter, Ruth Moran, that I read in Art and the National Parks before this trip. When his wife Mary died, about twenty years before he did, Ruth became his travel companion. She said of her father:

Every artist of genius experiences during his life a great spiritual revelation and upheaval. This revelation came to Moran as he journeyed on horseback through an almost unbelievable wilderness. To him, it was all grandeur, beauty, color, and light - nothing of man at all, but nature, virgin, unspoiled, and lovely. In the Yellowstone country he found fairy-like color and format his dreams could not rival.

When I first read this quote, I thought, that will be me in Yellowstone! But I've felt less revelation here than I did other places like the Tetons, Rockies, and Acadia. Perhaps it is the lack of wilderness surrounding the points at which he painted. I mean the landscape is protected, but it is so crowded with tourists. It is not so much "virgin and unspoiled" any more. Parts may be, but the landscapes that most inspired him are the landscapes everyone wants to be inspired by today.

I reflected today, after meeting a man who volunteers at the American Art Museum in Washington, DC, about first seeing Moran's Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. It was spring break of my sophomore year, and I was in the middle of writing a report for my art history class on Thomas Moran. This was my first introduction to Thomas Moran, the Hudson River School, and really landscape painting in general. Dan and I ended up having about 45 minutes in the museum before it closed because of everything we were trying to do in DC over the four days we were there. I knew I had to see this painting. I remember walking down a hallway, turning left, then making a right turn into a room. A Thomas Moran room. Three massive canvases hung on the three walls. I cannot emphasize enough how big these paintings are. Tears stung my little art-student eyes, overwhelmed by the beauty and grandeur of these masterpieces. There is so much detail incorporated into the experience of seeing these paintings - a bear in the corner, the people on horseback, the hot springs smoking in the distance, the small birds flying in the canyon. I think this canyon would be a beautiful place to be a bird. Standing there truly transports you out west to the canyon.

I've thought a little differently about photography on this leg of the trip, knowing how closely Moran worked with William Henry Jackson. I know Moran asked Hayden (leader of expedition) for a photo of his head because Moran wanted to include him on horseback in his large Grand Canyon painting. I imagine (and it might be confirmed in one of my books) that Moran also used Jackson's photos as reference in his paintings. So, I have been considering using only select black and white photos to reference when I work on larger paintings back in my studio, relying on my notes and memory for colors. He was also less concerned art accurately representing a place - less scientific than Frederic Church was.

I've met a lot of people out here...which is interesting, because Thomas Moran was with a group of people on the expedition, and met native Americans living here, so it feels similar in a way. Today a mom of a four year old boy picked him up to look at my painting. She said, "Paul, can you tell what it might be?" He said, "a volcano!" You know what Paul, in a sophisticated, history of the canyon way, you are right! I also met two separate solo travelers/photographers, Hannibal from San Francisco and Lisa from Boston. Lisa is also traveling via camper van! We talked for half an hour until it started raining, and Hannibal gave Lisa and I a ride back to our cars at the Tom's Trail parking lot. Thank god because I had forgotten my raincoat. Since it was raining, I decided to have dinner at the retro diner in Canyon. Kelli from North Carolina was my waitress...she's a tenth grade English teacher who is also engaged, and we chatted for a bit. I told her about how all day I heard "this must be Artist Point, ha ha ha!" She told me about the Taiwanese hitch hikers I saw the other day. There are many young people from Taiwan working here for the summer, and during their days off, they have limited transportation to see the park, so they hitchhike. So now I am more inclined to pick them up if I see them again.

Tonight when I got back to my car I hung my head out the window and looked up at the stars for about fifteen minutes. It's another entire vast landscape that I could never capture on a canvas.

Only photo I took today - Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone on the South Rim Trail, near Artist Point.
The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran, 1872.



1 comment:

  1. What an amazing painting by Moran! And yours if a great start. Such a challenge there with the weather and tourists and limitations imposed by the park in their effort to preserve it. You are doing the best you can do! Keep up the great work!
    Love, mom