Before 34-year-old Thomas Moran reached his ultimate destination of Yellowstone in Wyoming Territory in the summer of 1871, he stepped off the Union Pacific Railroad and viewed the towering cliffs of the Green River. The artist completed a field study that he later inscribed, “First Sketch Made in the West.”
Moran would return to this first Western subject of his many times during his storied career. His 1896 oil of Green River, featuring a troop of American Indians in the lower right, was exhibited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and appeared at auction for the first time, on May 21, 2015, at Christie’s New York. Not surprisingly, this rare work of art landed the top bid, at $7.5 million.
The painting was sold from the collection of American businessman William Koch, who is most famously known in the Old West collecting arena for paying $2.1 million for the only known photograph of outlaw Billy the Kid. Koch has been collecting Western artworks for an Old West town he hopes to build, but he ran out of room and decided to put some of the treasures on the auction block.
The Green River oil was painted a quarter century after Moran spent five weeks with Dr. Ferdinand Hayden’s surveying expedition to Yellowstone to complete an article assignment for Scribner’s Monthly. His visual documentation of more than 30 sites, along with photographs taken by William Henry Jackson, inspired the creation of Yellowstone as America’s first national park in 1872.
Although Moran took eight trips to the West, between 1871 and 1892, he never forgot his first experience of the frontier. His sketch of Green River lived on in his studio as the basis for more than 40 depictions he created of the river’s bluffs. His daughter Ruth recalled that whenever the household needed funds, the family would joke, “Well, it’s time for Father to paint another Green River.”
The artist did have a tendency to minimize signs of civilization in his paintings. He didn’t portray Green River’s railroad settlement, which had about 2,000 residents in 1868, the year Congress established Wyoming Territory. Moran ignored the town’s schoolhouse, church, hotel and brewery, and a landscape scarred by train tracks. Easterners viewing Green River from Moran’s perspective saw a virgin, pristine area, whose only inhabitants were wild American Indians. “I place no value upon literal transcripts from Nature. My general scope is not realistic; all my tendencies are toward idealization,” Moran freely admitted.
Along with Moran’s oil, collectors purchased works by other artists who similarly portrayed a more romantic and nostalgic impression of the frontier.
Editor’s Note: Despite Moran’s title, his sketch was not the “first” made in the West. George Catlin, Karl Bodmer, Alfred Jacob Miller and Albert Bierstadt were among the other artists who drew earlier sketches during their travels to the American West.