About the Work of Art:

Thomas Moran (1837–1926)
Cliffs of Green River, 1874
Oil on canvas
Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas


Thomas Moran (1837–1926), Cliffs of Green River, 1874, oil on canvas, Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas, 1975.28



In 1871 Thomas Moran volunteered to join Ferdinand Hayden’s U.S. Geological Survey expedition into the Yellowstone country and traveled through Green River, Wyoming Territory, to join them. During his journey, Moran became fascinated by the cliffs that rose along the riverbanks. These tower-like landmarks became one of the artist’s favorite subjects, which he repeated in more than forty canvases over the next thirty years. Cliffs of Green River is a view depicting the landmark Toll-Gate Rock with a dramatic storm forming over the walls of the rock formations beyond.

The Green River valley of Wyoming was once the site of fur trappers’ annual rendezvous, and the town later served as the western terminus for the Union Pacific Railroad. By the time Moran arrived, the burgeoning town on the banks of the river boasted a schoolhouse, church, hotel, and brewery. Moran chose to eliminate signs of commercial development, concentrating instead on the multicolored buttes rising above the river. Moran replaced railroad tracks with Native American caravans or traveling parties, and the languorous river lies uninterrupted by bridges. Skillfully combining the spectacular landscape of Green River with figures that reflected a nostalgic view of Native American life, Moran produced a series of paintings that were so popular that he continued to sell variations on the theme well into the twentieth century.

Moran found the angled cliff towers of the Green River continually inspiring and challenging. Although he varied his point of view frequently, Moran’s favorite formations at Green River seem to have been Toll-Gate Rock (or Castle Rock), the largest of the cascading cliffs, and its neighboring buttes, the Palisades. Toll-Gate Rock was so named because at one time toll fees were collected at this location from travelers along the river. The contrasting bands of rich red, brown, and cream limestone created a striking range of tones for artists and photographers alike.

Moran’s bright canvas aroused much interest in New York at the 1875 National Academy of Design exhibition, a showcase for new works of art. While one critic praised Moran’s “accurate feeling for a true key of color” and “remarkably extensive range of tints” that suggest “the effect of stirring music in a major key,” others questioned the truthfulness of them. As the wonders of Yellowstone became known, however, Moran’s colorful canvases were no longer doubted, and Cliffs of Green River stands as an early and characteristic example of his finest work.

Close inspection of this painting reveals that Thomas Moran moved his figures from place to place until he was satisfied that each was contributing fully to the composition. Faint pencil lines reveal previous attempts to resolve the composition. A pentimento–an underlying image in a painting that shows through–of a horse appears on the left side of the painting between the large party of travelers, including Native Americans along the shore, and the man with a feather headdress in the river.

In 1998 Thomas Moran’s Cliffs of Green River was selected as one of two Amon Carter Museum works depicted in a set of postage stamps. They are among the icons of American art reproduced in a twenty-piece set of U.S. thirty-two-cent denominations. The other image from the Carter selected for a postage stamp was John James Audubon’s Long-billed Curlew, from his 1834 portfolio of Birds of America.


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