Although he began as a follower of the Hudson River school of landscape artists, Thomas Moran earned his famed as one of the Rocky Mountain school artists after an expedition to Yellowstone in 1871. Other artists who were part of this Western school of landscape painters were William Keith, Thomas Hill and Albert Bierstadt. He enjoyed a long and industrious career as one of the best landscape artists in America in that period.
Moran began his art career when he was just a teenager, taking a job with Scattergood and Telfer, with was a wood-engraving company located in Philadelphia. His job was to copy illustrations made by other artists, which he admitted was a tedious chore, and in his own spare time he practiced painting with watercolors. In the 1850s he was promoted to an illustrator’s job in his company and taking art classes with James Hamilton, a local Philadelphian artist. Hamilton showed him works by J.M. W.Turner, which motivated Moran to take a trip to England in 1862 to see Turner’s paintings in person; those paintings helped Moran improve on his use of colors and choice of landscapes.
Within a few years Moran moved with his family to New York when he was hired as an illustrator at the Scribner’s Monthly magazine. His illustrations became very popular in the 1870s and 1880s and engravings of his works were used in many magazines and gift catalogs. He had worked his way up to chief illustrator at Scribner’s when his opportunity to become famous occurred.
It was in 1871 that Moran was invited by Northern Pacific Railroad’s director Jay Cooke to join with Dr. Ferdinand Hayden of the US Geological Survey, who was leading an expedition to survey the Yellowstone region. The area had not yet been really explored and the US government wanted to have it mapped. The owner of Scribner’s Monthly and Jay Cooke were helping to finance the exploration, so Cooke requested that Moran, whom he considered ‘an artist of rare genius’ be allowed to go along. The expedition lasted 40 days, and with the results of the survey, the sketches by Moran and photographs taken by William Henry Jackson, the Yellowstone area was made into the Yellowstone National Park, to be officially protected by the government for prosperity.
A year after the trip Moran completed a very large and beautiful painting showing the splendor of the region, titled The Grand Canyon of Yellowstone Park (1872), which the US government then bought from him for $10,000. This was the turning point for Moran, and he spent the next four decades hiking through the wilderness and sketching landscapes. He would then spend his time painting those scenes from the Rocky Mountains and Yellowstone areas, bringing the views to those who could not visit there themselves. Moran even added the letter ‘Y’ for Yellowstone, to his paintings, signing them with his new signature T.Y.M. In honor of his work in recording the scenes of the parklands, Mount Moran was named for him, and also Moran Point, a spot that he used as a viewpoint of the Grand Canyon, which became one of his famous paintings.
In 1884 Moran was invited to be a member of the National Academy of Design. He was married to landscape artist and etcher Mary Nimmo, and they had three children together. His children did not take up art, as their parents had, but many other members of the Moran family were active artists in their time. He painted Western landscapes well into his later years, and he was in Santa Barbara, California when he died, on August 26, 1926.