Painting of Zoroaster Peak by Thomas Moran
Thomas Moran, "Zoroaster Peak (Grand Canyon, Arizona)," 1918, oil on canvas, 9 x 12 in. Buffalo Bill Center of the West, purchased by the Board of Trustees in honor of Peter H. Hassrick

As a plein air painter, you are part of one of the largest art movements in history. Learn about those who have helped start this movement in some way, and be inspired to continue your own journey. Learn how Thomas Moran came to be one of the most famous landscape artists, and the meaning behind his secret signature.

Plein Air Heritage: Thomas Moran (1837-1926)

An invitation to join the first formal expedition to Yellowstone in 1871 set English-born Thomas Moran (1837–1926) on the unlikely path to becoming one of the best-known names in Western American art. His paintings documenting the geological wonders of the area earned him a spot on John Wesley Powell’s third exploratory trip to the Grand Canyon just two years later.

Traveling by boat down the Colorado River, Moran worked furiously every time Powell’s troop pulled ashore to rest, making sketches of the magnificent scenery that he would later turn into more formal, polished paintings back in his studio. Of the Grand Canyon, the artist said, “It was by far the most awfully grand and impressive scene that I have ever yet seen.”

In this view of Zoroaster Peak, now known as Zoroaster Temple, the Colorado River fills the foreground and reflects the colors of the canyon walls — from deep plum to lavender, ochre, and chalky white. In the lower right corner, beside his signature — TYM for Thomas “Yellowstone” Moran — you may be able to make out his thumbprint, which he added to prove authenticity.

Moran traveled widely, but returned to the Grand Canyon in his later years, producing paintings and etchings well into his 80s; indeed, he was 81 years old when he painted Zoroaster Peak (Grand Canyon, Arizona). At his death in Santa Barbara, California, in August 1926, he was memorialized as the “Dean of American Landscape Painters.”

Watch a documentary about the plein air painting movement to learn more about its history and evolution:


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