Teaching guide
Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone

The painting that inspired a National Park

Thomas Moran’s Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone (1872) will be useful in the study of:

  • Exploration of the American West
  • The creation of the National Parks system
  • The role of railroads in westward expansion
  • The role of tourism to the West in the nineteenth century

By the end of this lesson, students should be able to:

  • Discuss Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as a primary document that links to its specific historical context during the nineteenth century
  • Identify the social, political, and economic factors that led to the designation of Yellowstone as a National Park
  • Identify how the relationship between explorers and Native Americans was different from the relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government
Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872, oil on canvas mounted on aluminum, 213 x 266.3 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Thomas Moran, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872, oil on canvas mounted on aluminum, 213 x 266.3 cm, Smithsonian American Art Museum (photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

1. Look closely at the painting

Look closely at Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone by Thomas Moran 1872 (zoomable images, also available for download for teaching)

Questions to ask: 

  • Describe the landscape. What features seem most important to you?
  • How is this painting similar to other landscape paintings you’ve seen? How is it different?
  • What mood or emotion would you associate with this painting?

2. Watch the video

The video “The painting that inspired a National Park” is only nine minutes long. Ideally, the video should provide an active rather than a passive classroom experience. Please feel free to stop the video to respond to student questions, to underscore or develop issues, to define vocabulary, or to look closely at parts of the painting that are being discussed. Key points, a self-diagnostic quiz, and high resolution photographs with details of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone are provided to support the video.

3. Read about the painting and its historical context

A scientific expedition

Thomas Moran was one of the members of the first geological survey of the Yellowstone region, led by Ferdinand Hayden. William Henry Jackson was the photographer for the expedition. Moran was not an explorer – he had to learn how to ride a horse so he could join the survey’s crew. He applied to be part of the expedition because he became intrigued by Yellowstone after illustrating stories about it for Scribner’s magazine. Since there were large areas of the American West that were thinly populated, and not well known to non-Native Americans, many different groups were interested in gathering information about these lands. Frederic Jackson Turner’s “Frontier Thesis” of 1893 proclaimed that the United States had now colonized the American continent from west to east, and now all that was left was to fill in the gaps in the middle. This proclamation ignored the increasing displacement and military action that had taken place against the Plains Native Americans since the end of the Civil War.

An economic gamble

The survey was financed by Jay Cooke, who had contributed substantially to the Union effort during the Civil War, and was now turning his eye towards the development of railroads in the West. The Transcontinental Railroad had been completed in 1869, and the Northern Pacific Railway, financed in part by Cooke, wanted to copy its success. It was begun in 1870 and its main line completed in 1883, connecting the Great Lakes and western Montana. Cooke was also interested in creating spurs from the main line to tourist destinations, and places like Yellowstone looked like promising hot spring destinations that could rival European spa towns like Baden-Baden. The eventual designation of Yellowstone as a national park led to the creation of a Northern Pacific Railway spur that led to what would become the location of the Old Faithful Inn at Yellowstone, which opened in 1904.

From sketches to paintings

Moran sketched in watercolor, while his colleague Jackson took black and white photographs. Moran’s attention to the geological details that Hayden was recording can be seen in his highly naturalistic depiction of eroding rock, the texture of the sagebrush, and the use of lighting on the pine trees to show the depth of the canyon. His oil painting, competed after returning from the journey, is a composite of several views and is meant to give the impression of the landscape rather than a scientific view of it. He was greatly influenced by the English painter J.M.W. Turner, who also was more interested in the visual and emotional effect of his paintings than their accuracy.

Making a park and a career

Hayden presented his preliminary findings to Congress, along with Jackson’s photographs and Moran’s watercolors, and proposed that Yellowstone be set aside as the first official national park. Moran, upon hearing this would happen, rented a studio in Washington D.C. and began work on the very large (213 x 266.3 cm) oil painting of Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. He finished the painting at the same time that president Ulysses S. Grant signed the legislation designating Yellowstone as a national park, and Congress bought the painting and put it on view in the Capitol to commemorate the momentous event. Moran would become famous for his Western scenes, especially those of Yellowstone, and would refer to himself as Thomas “Yellowstone” Moran.

4. Discussion questions

  1. Thomas Moran depicted Yellowstone National Park in many paintings, which were very popular with the viewing public. What natural features near you are well-known? How do people capture and preserve memories of this natural feature?
  2. Yellowstone was difficult to get to when Hayden’s expedition visited it in 1871, but by 1904 there was a full hotel served by a rail line there, and today there are highways leading to the park and roads running through it. Is it better for places like Yellowstone to be accessible to as many people as possible, or should they be harder to get to? What might be the benefits and drawbacks to each?

5. Research questions

  1. Thomas Moran was greatly influenced by J.M.W. Turner’s style of painting.  Compare Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone to one of Turner’s landscape paintings. How are they the same? How are they different?
  2. Photographer Ansel Adams is also an artist associated with the national parks, although he was almost two generations younger than Thomas Moran. Compare two or three of Ansel Adams’ photographs of Yosemite and compare them to Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. How is photography different from oil  painting? What do Adams’ photographs and Moran’s painting both emphasize about the landscape? How are they different?

6. Bibliography

Read a biography of Thomas Moran at the National Gallery of Art

Read Thomas Moran’s Yellowstone diary at the National Park Service

Read a biography of William Henry Jackson at the National park Service

View a selection of William Henry Jackson’s photographs of Yosemite at the Library of Congress

Read  Ferdinand Hayden’s article “More about the Yellowstone”. Scribner’s Monthly. III (4): 388–396 (February 1872).

National Park Service video orientation to Yosemite National Park

Explore  primary sources related to the Pacific Northern Railway: 1

Explore  primary sources related to the Pacific Northern Railway: 2

Explore  primary sources related to the Pacific Northern Railway: 3

Whittlesey, Lee, and Schullery, Paul. 2011. Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park. Bison Books.

Diana Seave Greenwald, “The Big Picture: Thomas Moran’s The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone and the Development of the American West,” Winterthur Portfolio 49, no. 4 (Winter 2015): 175-210.

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.