Marvelous Moran

The entry wall to an exhibition can often reveal a curator’s bias. If we are not adhering to a chronological or strict thematic arrangement, the first object you see might simply be a secret personal favorite.

Such is the case with the first wall of Tales from the American West: The Rees-Jones Collection, now on view in the museum’s galleries. The show features a hearty selection of romantic, nostalgic, and virtuosic renditions of artistic imaginings of the mythic West—from bronze wranglers to vibrant oil portraits of Taos denizens.

Maybe it’s because my attempts at watercolor painting look something like this

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Maggie Adler, Amateurish Watercolor, 2015

that I have become quite partial to Thomas Moran’s dazzling color combinations in Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1895, which I have placed front and center at the beginning of the exhibition.

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Thomas Moran (1837–1926), Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1895, watercolor on paper, Rees-Jones Collection, 2013.15.1

Some passages remain discreet areas of unmixed color, some portions blend and bleed masterfully. Turquoise practically vibrates off the paper, and we have a palpable sense of the sublime vistas that Moran encountered. The scenes he witnessed made it into his sketchbooks as preliminary sketches that he revisited back in his studio, relying on his own sometimes quite poetic color notations as his guide. Nowhere in this work can we find a grungy, muddy soup or over-moistened, rumpled passage of paper—as are always to be found in my own creations.

How is this accomplished? With a great dose of patience. I have recently been educated in the intricacies of making watercolor. Everything plays a role, from the texture of the paper to the brushes used to the manipulation of water to the artist’s instinct to wait for the exact moment in which the paint is just dry enough to apply another layer but not so dry as to prove unmalleable.

While it is true that watercolor can be unforgiving—once the paint is applied it is not easily covered or removed—the virtuoso watercolorist has tricks up a sleeve from sponging to masking to scraping to even using stale bread to absorb excess paint.

As much as Moran intended for us to be in awe of this landscape, I am in awe of the technique that translated his view into the marvelous work on paper we have the privilege to feature in our galleries.

Maggie Adler, Assistant Curator